The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Other Selves: Animals in the Canadian Literary Imagination edited by Janice Fiamengo

Reviewed by Emily Essert

Janice Fiamengo Ed.
Other Selves: Animals in the Canadian Literary Imagination.
U of Ottawa P 2007
363 pp.
$45.00

Edited by Janice Fiamengo, Other Selves: Animals in the Canadian Literary Imagination offers an excellent and much-needed collection of essays about Canada’s literary creatures. Despite all of the ink spilled on the Canadian relationship to nature and the wilderness, on the impact of our natural environment on our national culture, and on the various ways Canadians represent nature, few, if any, other collections or monographs devote themselves exclusively to the representation of animals in Canadian writing. This collection therefore fills an important gap in the study of Canadian literature. And it does so quite thoroughly, offering fifteen high-quality articles with a wide variety of approaches to a diverse array of animal texts.

Fiamengo has helpfully divided the collection into three parts. In the first, critics “explore the questions of representational accuracy” (13) and ask questions about the ethical implications of authors’ attempts at realism or accuracy and about the costs and benefits of anthropomorphism, as in the wide-reaching essays by Gwendolyn Guth and Travis V. Mason. Other essays, such as Susan Fisher’s on the poetry of Don McKay and Jack Robinson’s on Life of Pi, examine the strategies creative writers adopt in order to represent animals responsibly. The second section contains essays dealing with “individual writers […] who have identified closely with animals” (13) — critics assess the ecological agendas of Timothy Findley and Dennis Lee, and sympathetically reconsider Grey Owl (an early-twentieth-century writer famous for falsely claiming to be Aboriginal). A similarly recuperative project is Gwendolyn Davies’ defense of Marshall Saunders (a writer of popular animal stories at the turn of the last century) against charges of sentimentalism and excessive anthropomorphism. The third and final section of the book includes essays that address “broadly political questions, seeking to understand what representations mean in particular contexts and how they function to serve social or ideological ends” (13). Here we find Brian Jonson’s discussion of primitivist and nationalist discourses in Canadian wolf stories, and Wendy Roy’s analysis of what hunting meant for female travellers/adventurers over the course of Canadian history. Roy’s essay, like Sugars’ essay on Katherine Govier’s novelistic portray of John James Audubon in part one, makes effective use of photographic evidence to support its claims.

Fiamengo wisely chose to broaden the scope of this collection by including essays that are not about fictional or poetic works; for example, Christoph Irmscher’s essay on nineteenth-century natural historian Thomas McIllwraith’s The Birds of Ontario and Misao Dean’s essay on Ernest Thompson Seton’s travel writing. The variety of texts under analysis reminds readers that there are many vehicles and venues for literary representations of animals, and this reminder raises questions about the different analytical strategies necessary for each approach. Among the theoretical articles, Ella Soper-Jones makes excellent use of scientific evidence, primarily from the field of animal cognition, in her discussion of Barbara Gowdy’s use of anthropomorphism in The White Bone, and Peter Webb dips into philosophical and animal-rights discourses in his reading of Timothy Findley’s The Wars. As another example, Jack Robinson employs ecocritical theory to argue that Life of Pi emphasizes “an alternative kind of spirituality based on the recognition of animal souls” (130). Because of this variety, the collection manages to address important Canadian animal texts both old and new: that essays on Charles G.D. Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton (who are generally credited with pioneering the animal story in Canada) appear alongside discussions of recent novels reminds readers that the newer work participates in a long tradition of Canadian animal writing.

One of the great strengths of Other Selves is Fiamengo’s lively, elegant, and comprehensive introduction. For those new to the field, the introduction provides a thorough survey of previous thinking about animals in Canadian literature: it reviews key critical texts on the Canadian wilderness, and summarizes the important responses to the most canonical Canadian creative writing about animals. It also locates Canadian animal studies within an international context; Fiamengo invokes critical work by Steve Baker, Mark Beckoff, Donna Haraway, and others. The chapter summaries are succinct, well written, and offer readers a clear map of the text. Gwendolyn Guth’s article is a nice complement to the introduction: it asks broad theoretical questions that provide a groundwork for much of what follows and gains coherence by having an analysis of Marian Engel’s Bear as its focal point. Travis V. Mason’s essay, like Guth’s, helps to lend coherence to the volume: of the five books addressed by Mason, three were the subject of analysis in other essays in this collection. His essay is a felicitous submission because it allows Other Selves to offer multiple viewpoints on three important Canadian animal novels.

The volume does, however, lack an even balance between poetry and prose. Only two of the fifteen essays discuss poetry: Susan Fisher’s on Don McKay and Greg Maillet’s on Dennis Lee. As these critics illustrate, poetry’s play with rhyme, rhythm, spacing, and lineation, as well as its wide variety of forms and genres, prompts unique ethical questions and offers creative opportunities for respectful representations. On the whole, however, this collection should be required reading for those in literary animal studies, and will also be of interest to Canadianists and ecocritics.

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 About the Author

At press time: Emily Essert is a PhD candidate in English at McGill. Her dissertation, A Modernist Menagerie, investigates representations of animals in modern poetry, focusing on the work T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, H.D., Irving Layton and P.K. Page. Her research interests include modern North American and British poetry, with an emphasis on socio-historical and formalist approaches. She has published on E.E. Cummings, and has articles in progress on the long poems of Ezra Pound and Louis Dudek, and on writers’ personal libraries.

 

 

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