When I first started exploring Edmonton’s local literature, I was excited by the idea that I could get a full grasp on the fictional representation of this place. Sure, I thought, a few people have written books set in Edmonton. But there can’t be that many of them. It’s not as if I live in New York or London or Paris or any other well-storied place, where it would take several lifetimes to get through a comprehensive read.
To my dismay and delight, as I started to scratch at the surface of Edmonton literature, I discovered that my home is really no different from all those legendary places. There are hundreds of books written about this city. Thousands of poems, short stories and creative non-fiction essays. Millions of oral stories, urban myths, tall tales and local folklore. There have always been storytellers here, reflecting on this city and its people.
When you dive into Edmonton’s literary canon, you start to recognize a few key themes that continuously recirculate: a self-deprecating sense of humour mixed with a fierce, defensive pride in our ugly city. A conflicting blend of optimism and pessimism, depending on the daily price of Western Canadian Select. An unearned obsession with ourselves as a cold, remote, rugged northern outpost.
City council has seized on this last theme, developing the Winter City Strategy to capitalize on our frosty reputation. We need only look from recent books, like the 40 Below anthologies, all the way back to older texts like Ella May Walker’s 1947 novel Fortress North, to see that this celebration of our climate is an essential part of Edmonton’s story. More than a couple Edmonton characters have frozen to death or been left out to die and survived the cold, including a resourceful mechanic from Sean Stewart’s The Night Watch and the journalist hero of Wayne Arthurson’s Fall From Grace. There’s a certain self-congratulatory hardiness for enduring such a cold and desolate place—a feeling that our writers are appropriating the snide criticisms from other Canadian cities and reclaiming our cool climate as a point of pride.
Apart from our fondness for calling ourselves northern, one other theme emerges as a dominant image in Edmonton literature: our river.
The North Saskatchewan River bisects our city, and it flows across the pages of our books just as swiftly. The valley trails, the High Level Bridge, the riverboat, the silt-stained waters themselves—they appear in almost every story, in one form or another.
“You have to live in Edmonton to know about our riverbank walks,” writes Linda Goyette in her introduction to Edmonton In Our Own Words, the city’s 2004 centennial history. “When we need to talk to one another about something important—or listen—we find a trail beside the North Saskatchewan River and start walking. This city is a conversation with a river running through it.”
Often that’s an actual conversation, like the humourous exchange between a random woman named Helen and Professor Raymond Terletsky in Todd Babiak’s The Garneau Block. The disgraced philosopher contemplates throwing himself into the cold, deep, sturgeon-infested waters until Helen drags him back from the edge. Sometimes the conversation is an internal monologue, like when Hamza Senesert walks across the High Level Bridge’s train tracks in Minister Faust’s Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad. The disillusioned dishwasher thinks about the Great Divide waterfall, a symbol of a city that once dreamed big wild dreams but has since become unimpressed with magic tricks.
“The river is the city’s hinge, its east-west line,” writes Alice Major in the poem “Envision the Outline.” The North Saskatchewan is indeed the connection point upon which Edmonton’s literature rotates. Some of our stories even begin with their characters on the river. Gail Helgason’s Swimming into Darkness starts with archaeologist Thora Sigurdson staring at the waters: “heavy, silt-ridden, intricately braided with unseen currents.” In 2007, the Edmonton Journal’s crowd-sourced novel (Emmy Budge PI: The Ixion File, which was co-written by Thomas Wharton and by readers contributing a chapter each week) begins with a murder on the Edmonton Queen Riverboat.
Some of our stories even combine these two great motifs—the perpetual winter, the swift-flowing river—and ponder the iced-locked North Saskatchewan and its inevitable freedom in the spring. Theodore Stappler and Mark Lerner look out on the frozen river in Henry Kreisel’s The Betrayal, wondering how amazing it would be to see all the ice break up and flow away. In her contribution to Edmonton on Location: River City Chronicles, Myrna Kostash answers their question: “I stand at the condo window and rejoice, at Spring breakup, about the liberated surge of water that has gushed out of the mountains and into this embrace of the loamy, bushy banks at Edmonton.”
Why are we all so fascinated by the river? Sure, it’s hard to avoid mentioning. It’s right there, at the heart of our city, in the foreground of every cityscape. But it’s also a vague-enough symbol that it can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. For Kostash, it’s a symbol of another frequent motif in Edmonton literature: the desire to leave this city and never return.
“We stop on its bridges and banks, staring down into the streaming current of murky water racing east, mesmerized by that quality a river has if we stand looking at it in one spot: a thing that is passing us, going somewhere else, leaving us and not coming back. Wherever it’s going, we’re not going with it. We may be lost in contemplation, but it does not stop its run to the sea. That’s what rivers do.”
Whether you’re itching to flow on out of the city or you’ve committed to growing your deep roots here, you probably have your own stories about the North Saskatchewan’s sinuous curves and frosty lily pads. Our river might end in Lake Winnipeg—it might even dry up one day, when the glaciers disappear and the rains stop falling—but it will always keep running through the thousands of fictional Edmontons that our storytellers have created.