SLICK fic­tion

Sten­son’s oil­sands novel any­thing but crude

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Bob Arm­strong

WHETHER you view Al­berta’s oil­sands de­vel­op­ments as a car­bon bomb set to ren­der our planet un­in­hab­it­able or as a tech­no­log­i­cal mar­vel prop­ping up our na­tion’s econ­omy, their in­vis­i­bil­ity in Cana­dian fic­tion seems to support the crit­i­cism that our lit­er­a­ture is too in­ter­nal, too do­mes­tic and too his­tor­i­cally fo­cused. And so Al­berta’s Fred Sten­son — a writer uniquely qual­i­fied to meet this chal­lenge — has done Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture a ser­vice by pro­duc­ing the long-awaited oil­sands novel. Who By Fire, Sten­son’s ninth book of fic­tion, tells two sto­ries drenched in hy­dro­car­bons: that of the Ry­der fam­ily of south­west­ern Al­berta, whose lives are turned up­side-down by the ar­rival of a plant pro­cess­ing sour gas (rich in poi­sonous hy­dro­gen sul­fide) in 1960, and that of late-mid­dle-aged Bill Ry­der, the se­nior en­gi­neer in charge of sul­phur pro­cess­ing at a present-day Fort McMur­ray-area oil­sands plant.

It’s a story of cor­po­ra­tions get­ting their way, re­gard­less of en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences, and of the phys­i­cal, fi­nan­cial, and emo­tional hard­ship they cause. Sten­son, whose own farm fam­ily was one of the first to win in court against the oil and gas in­dus­try, is best known for his lit­er­ary westerns, The Trade, Light­ning and The Great Ka­roo, which ex­plored the trans­for­ma­tion of prairie life. Not co­in­ci­den­tally, the vil­lain in The Trade was a cor­po­ra­tion: the Hud­son Bay Company. In Who By Fire, we first see the sour gas plant from pre-school-aged Billy Ry­der’s per­spec­tive as a thing of mythic power: “like the fire in the Bi­ble that burns with­out wood, or the fire that comes out of the rubbed lan­tern in Il­lus­trated Folk Tales of the World. A ge­nie set free after a thou­sand years.” That open­ing prom­ises a story about forces on a grand scale, but for the most part this is a quiet, fine-grained novel. In both nar­ra­tive threads the suf­fer­ing is rel­a­tively low-key: psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional, rather than cat­a­strophic. Child­hood emo­tional harm makes adult Bill a VLT ad­dict; the casino seems to be sym­bolic of the way our oil-based econ­omy dou­bles down on its bets. There’s a ripped-from-the-head­lines as­pect to the con­tem­po­rary plot­line, as when we hear ref­er­ences to a con­tro­ver­sial re­port on can­cer in the down­stream com­mu­nity of Fort Chipewyan. The popular me­dia im­age of Fort McMur­ray as a mod­ern Dodge City emerges when Bill’s over­worked ther­a­pist rants: “I treat meth ad­dicts, crack­heads, al­co­holics who beat their wives and chil­dren so badly am­bu­lances have to be called.” (To be fair, a Win­nipeg mayor who could get our homi­cide and vi­o­lent crime rates down to Fort McMur­ray’s level would be re-elected for life.) Sten­son cap­tures some of the ab­sur­di­ties of re­source de­vel­op­ment in Canada, in­clud­ing the pan­der­ing and pos­tur­ing about en­vi­ron­men­tal and cul­tural sen­si­tiv­ity. When Bill first meets his love in­ter­est, Marie, a woman from the neigh­bour­ing First Na­tions com­mu­nity, she tells him she’s tired of meet­ing the oil company’s com­mu­nity re­la­tions rep­re­sen­ta­tive be­cause he “al­ways brings to­bacco, in a cloth bag or some­times in a brand-new leather pouch. If it’s a bag he puts a pretty-coloured rib­bon on it. Like it was 1875 and I had never seen a store.” He por­trays a cor­po­rate world in which oil com­pa­nies have be­come bet­ter at speak­ing in sooth­ing tones and is­su­ing mild mea cul­pas, all the while speed­ing up their ef­forts to pump ev­ery last drop. And though he holds out some hope for per­sonal heal­ing from psy­cho­log­i­cal wounds, he’s clear that nei­ther the oil com­pa­nies nor the Al­berta gov­ern­ment are likely to change course. As Bill puts it: “Hope’s not my depart­ment.” Bob Arm­strong is a Win­nipeg writer whose first full-time job was cov­er­ing the oil­sands

for the Fort McMur­ray news­pa­per.

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