Writing in Dust is the first sustained study of prairie Canadian literature from an ecocritical perspective. Drawing on recent scholarship in environmental theory and criticism, Jenny Kerber considers the ways in which prairie writers have negotiated processes of ecological and cultural change in the region from the early twentieth century to the present.
The book begins by proposing that current environmental problems in the prairie region can be understood by examining the longstanding tendency to describe its diverse terrain in dualistic terms – either as an idyllic natural space or as an irredeemable wasteland. It inquires into the sources of stories that naturalize ecological prosperity and hardship and investigates how such narratives have been deployed from the period of colonial settlement to the present. It then considers the ways in which works by both canonical and more recent writers ranging from Robert Stead, W.O. Mitchell, and Margaret Laurence to Tim Lilburn, Louise Halfe, and Thomas King consistently challenge these dualistic landscape myths, proposing alternatives for the development of more ecologically just and sustainable relationships among people and between humans and their physical environments.
Writing in Dust asserts that "reading environmentally" can help us to better understand a host of issues facing prairie inhabitants today, including the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, resource extraction, climate change, shifting urban–rural demographics, the significance of Indigenous understandings of human–nature relationships, and the complex, often contradictory meanings of eco-cultural metaphors of alien/invasiveness, hybridity, and wildness.
"Jenny Kerber's Writing in Dust: Reading the Prairier Environmentally is an important contribution from a critic who promises to be integral to the future of our conversations about Canadian literature and the environment. It is a successful, succinct, and intelligent book that reads a selection of prairie literature in order to generate an environmentally focused understanding of its focal region. Published in Wilfrid Laurier Press's Environmental Humanities series, it demonstrates a seamlessly interdisciplinary approach that crosses literary and environmental studies [...] Ultimately Kerber's even-handed approach to her texts enables her to move in a different direction than Jon Paul Fiorentino and Robert Kroetsch in their recent anthology Post-Prairie and to put Edenic and Apocalyptic narratives to another purpose than Marlene Goldman does in Rewriting Apocalypse in Canadian Fiction. One notes the depth of her research, particularly evident in the apparatus of the text, which manages nevertheless not to disturb the focus of her writing. That she balances her argument against the hefty existing scholarship with ease demonstrates that Kerber is a critic who is comfortable with her assertions about what we might do, as readers and as humans, to improve life on the prairies. Kerber proposes a sort of therapy through narrative for those who believe that the prairie can be an endpoint, eith a return to Eden, or the final reckoning: 'we cannot begin to comprehend the myriad ecological challenges that the prairies face today,' she argues, 'without first examining the impact that particular environmental stories have had on perceptions of the region.' She reasonably proposes that the prairie is an idea, a process, and a space. Untangling these threads through the stories that we have told about the prairie, however, proves to be a rather more important challenge, one that Kerber is very much up to."
– Kit Dobson, The Goose, Issue 9, Summer 2011
"Kerber places her reading of 'prairie' literature within histories that saw the prairies as Edenic, as site for economic gain, or as blighted wasterland. The book is well researched in geography, history, government policy, corporate intervention, and literature. It is also openly partisan and supposes that to tell 'the right stories' can profoundly alter our lives. To be 'a citizen' of the prairies 'means taking responsibility' for 'an alternative future.' Kerber advocates ongoing reciprocity between place and inhabitants, whatever their ethnicity, gender, region, or status as 'non-human.' Against a view of the prairies as agricultural, male, post-European, and guided by faith in technological or economic progress, she advances a claim for an ecological response."
– Dennis Cooley, University of Toronto Quarterly, Volume 81, number 3
"Writing in Dust is the first book to mark the trail between regionalist criticism of the 1970s and ecocritical and bioregional criticism of the present and future while simultaneously taking account of intervening theoretical debates. In strikingly lucid and humane prose, Jenny Kerber brings prairie poetry and fiction into play with the nature memoir. Her book is a model of the kind of critical responsiveness we need as we adapt to environmental challenges of the twenty-first century."
– Pamela Banting, University of Calgary, editor of Fresh Tracks: Writing the Western Landscape
"This is the right book at the right time. Writing in Dust convincingly demonstrates the importance of including the arts in discussions of sustainability. Jenny Kerber's scholarship, sensitive and rigorous, rereads familiar texts in fresh ways and makes the field of prairie literary scholarship newly relevant."
– Alison Calder, editor of Desire Never Leaves: The Poetry of Tim Lilburn, University of Manitoba
"Kerber's scholarly examination of Canadian prairie literature should serve as a founding text in regional ecocriticism. Her postcolonial position – challenging racist and imperial assumptions that have led to the environmental crisis in the prairies – informs a large purpose. Kerber (English, Univ. of Toronto) hopes that understanding 20th-century prairie novels, nature memoirs, and poetry will lead to sustainable dwelling practices in the 21st century. Interdisciplinary at heart, this study fills historical and geographical gaps in literary criticism and nicely bring the 'dust' to life [...] Highly recommended."
– L.L. Johnson, Choice, Vol. 48, No. 9
"Kerber's [...] readings of a range of important prairie texts are unusually full and knowledgeable. She strives in this study to provide a broader sense of context for prairie literature – emphasizing politics, agriculture, and particularly settler-aboriginal relations – and there is a sense of urgency to her analysis [...] Kerber studies twelve writers in considerable depth, and her choices are admirable. Her first chapter, on the fiction of Stead, Mitchell, and Edward McCourt, and her third, on the poetry of Tim Lilburn, Louise Halfe, and Madeline Coopsammy, are both capable and intelligent. However, the other two sections are particularly good. Her analysis of the nature memoirs of F.P. Grove, Wallace Stegner, and Trevor Herriot is original and refreshing. And possibly the best chapter here is the one on 'storytelling as environmental work' by Thomas King, Rudy Wiebe, and Margaret Laurence. Kerber's insistent honouring of aboriginal perspectives and, surprisingly but agreeably, theological ideas is generous and careful [...] Her detailed and stimulating analyses of individual literary works and her reminder of 'the role that language plays in the becoming of places' (9) – a lovely phrase – Jenny Kerber has performed admirably. Her work on Who Has Seen the Wind, for example, is a much-needed repossession from sentimentality. One cannot help but come away from Writing in Dust with a much more grounded and inclusive outlook on prairie writing."
– Sue Sorensen, Prairie Fire Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 3
Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. “This soil is rich”: Reading the Environment in the Early Prairie Novel
Chapter 3. How Do You Grow a Nature Writer? The Prairie Nature Memoir
Chapter 4. Unsettling the Prairie: The Ecological Poetries of Tim Lilburn, Louise Halfe, and Madeline Coopsammy
Chapter 5. “We’re just getting started”: Storytelling as Environmental Work in Green Grass, Running Water, Sweeter Than All the World, and The Diviners
Chapter 6. Conclusion
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Jenny Kerber teaches in the areas of Canadian and American literature, literary theory, and environmental criticism in the Department of English at the University of Toronto. Her essays on Canadian literary and environmental topics have appeared in Canadian Poetry, Canadian Literature, Essays on Canadian Writing, and Green Letters. This is her first book.