Rudy (Henry) Wiebe Biography
Rudy Wiebe comments:
Nationality: Canadian. Born: Fairholme, Saskatchewan, 1934. Education: Alberta Mennonite High School; University of Alberta, Edmonton, 1953-56, 1958-60 (International Nickel graduate fellow, 1958-59; Queen Elizabeth graduate fellow, 1959-60), B.A. 1956, M.A. 1960; University of Tübingen, Germany (Rotary fellow), 1957-58; University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 1961; University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1964. Career: Research officer, Glenbow Foundation, Calgary, 1956; foreign service officer, Ottawa, 1960; high school teacher, Selkirk, Manitoba, 1961; editor, Mennonite Brethren Herald, Winnipeg, 1962-63; assistant professor of English, Goshen College, Indiana, 1963-67. Assistant professor, 1967-70, associate professor, 1970-77, professor of English, University of Alberta, 1977-92; since 1992, professor emeritus. Awards: Canada Council arts scholarship, 1964, award, 1971; Governor General's award for fiction, 1973, 1994; grant, 1977; Lorne Pierce medal, 1987. D. Litt.: University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1986; Wilfred Laurier University, 1991. LLD: Brock University, 1991.
Peace Shall Destroy Many. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1962;Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1964.
First and Vital Candle. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, and GrandRapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1966.
The Blue Mountains of China. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, andGrand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1970.
The Temptations of Big Bear. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1973; Athens, Ohio University Press, 2000.
The Scorched-Wood People. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1977.
The Mad Trapper. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1977.
My Lovely Enemy. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1983.
A Discovery of Strangers. Toronto, Knopf, 1994.
Where Is the Voice Coming From? Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1974.
Personal Fictions, with others, edited by Michael Ondaatje. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1977.
Alberta: A Celebration, edited by Tom Radford. Edmonton, Alberta, Hurtig, 1979.
The Angel of the Tar Sands and Other Stories. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1982.
River of Stone: Fictions and Memories. Toronto, Vintage Books, 1995.
Far as the Eye Can See, with Theatre Passe Muraille. Edmonton, Alberta, NeWest Press, 1977.
A Voice in the Land: Essays by and about Rudy Wiebe, edited by W.J. Keith. Edmonton, Alberta, NeWest Press, 1981.
Playing Dead: A Contemplation Concerning the Arctic. Edmonton, Alberta, NeWest Press, 1989.
Silence: The Word and the Sacred (essays). Waterloo, Ontario, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989.
Chinook Christmas (for children), illustrated by David More. RedDeer College Press, 1993.
Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman. Toronto, Knopf Canada, 1998; Athens, Ohio, Swallow Press, 2000.
Editor, The Story-Makers: A Selection of Modern Short Stories. Toronto, Macmillan, 1970.
Editor, Stories from Western Canada: A Selection. Toronto, Macmillan, 1972.
Editor, with Andreas Schroeder, Stories from Pacific and Arctic Canada: A Selection. Toronto, Macmillan, 1974.
Editor, Double Vision: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Stories in
English. Toronto, Macmillan, 1976.
Editor, Getting Here: Stories. Edmonton, Alberta, NeWest Press, 1977.
Editor, with Aritha van Herk, More Stories from Western Canada. Toronto, Macmillan, 1980.
Editor, with Aritha van Herk and Leah Flater, West of Fiction. Edmonton, Alberton, NeWest Press, 1982.
Editor, with Bob Beal, War in the West: Voices of the 1885 Rebellion. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1985.
University of Calgary Library, Alberta.
The Comedians: Hugh Hood and Rudy Wiebe by Patricia A. Morley, Toronto, Clarke Irwin, 1977; Epic Fiction: The Art of Rudy Wiebe by W.J. Keith, Edmonton, University of Alberta Press, 1981; articles in A Voice in the Land, 1981, and Journal of Commonwealth Literature (Edinburgh), 19(1), 1984.
I believe that the worlds of fiction—story—should provide pleasure of as many kinds as possible to the reader; I believe fiction must be precisely, peculiarly rooted in a particular place, in particular people; I believe writing fiction is as serious, as responsible an activity as I can ever perform. Therefore in my fiction I try to explore the world that I know: the land and people of western Canada; from my particular world view: a radical Jesus-oriented Christianity.
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Canada's foremost Mennonite writer, and one of the most innovative writers of historical fiction today, Rudy Wiebe, has consistently addressed far-reaching moral, social, and spiritual questions through narratives that focus on specific, rigorously researched, historical moments. Of his eight major novels to date, three—Peace Shall Destroy Many, The Blue Mountains of China, and My Lovely Enemy—focus directly on Mennonite communities in Canada and elsewhere; the remaining five—First and Vital Candle, The Mad Trapper, The Temptations of Big Bear, The Scorched-Wood People, A Discovery of Strangers (and to some extent, My Lovely Enemy)—examine the encroachments of white society on traditional Native American, Métis, and Inuit ways of life.
Irrespective of their differences, Wiebe's works are all thematically informed by his radical Mennonite faith, and his plots are all set in motion by what, in the title of his latest work, he calls "a discovery of strangers." Wiebe emphasizes the extent to which traditional indigenous and Mennonite communities were separated from the rest of humanity by barriers of space, language, culture, and, most importantly, religious belief. Day-to-day life in these communities was organized in accordance with religious and moral certainties, which, having solidified into fixed codes of conduct, remained for many years unquestioned. However, in each of Wiebe's novels, the boundaries of a closed community are broken open. Traditional cultural practices and religious certainties are either directly challenged from without or are exposed, as a result of external pressures, to threats that are latent within. In either case, a period of spiritual and moral disorientation ensues, in which the protagonist's most fundamental beliefs and values are tested.
Wiebe subjects his readers also to forces of disorientation. As his career progresses, he departs more and more from the conventions of narrative realism. The Blue Mountains of China, The Temptations of Big Bear, My Lovely Enemy, and (to a lesser extent) A Discovery of Strangers are fragmented, multi-voiced, stylistically heterogeneous narratives in which Wiebe "re-writes" existing historical documents and religious texts by inserting them into new verbal contexts. Perhaps because he is so acutely aware that meanings are intertextually generated, Wiebe continually tests the textual foundations of historical and religious certainty.
At times, Wiebe's Mennonite rhetoric intrudes awkwardly into his narratives, as in First and Vital Candle or in the end of The Blue Mountains of China. But Wiebe, in fact, addresses this very problem in First and Vital Candle and My Lovely Enemy, where he dramatizes the unsavory politics of Christian proselytizing. Mindful that his readership is not a congregation to be browbeaten, but a diverse community to be drawn into active dialogue with his texts, Wiebe has developed various intricate modes of indirect address. The main characters in both First and Vital Candle and The Mad Trapper escape to the seclusion of the Arctic. Abe Ross, from First and Vital Candle, eventually finds a new community while Albert Johnson severs all human contact, leaving mysterious his past, motives, and even identity.
Those of Wiebe's novels that are concerned with Canada's indigenous peoples are readable as post-colonial historical metafictions. They dramatize the power of communications technologies—writing, print, photography, telegraphy, film, computers, and other electronic media—as instruments of colonial and neo-imperial domination. Yet, in the process of recounting history from various indigenous perspectives, Wiebe also articulates Mennonite religious, social, and ecological values. In so doing, he has attracted accusations of cultural appropriation.
Throughout his writing career, Wiebe has concerned himself with the exploration of the mystery and variety of love. After touching rather awkwardly on love and divine grace in First and Vital Candle, Wiebe's exploration of love becomes at once more philosophical and more physically explicit, a quality that has provoked objections to his manner of representing women and female sexuality. In My Lovely Enemy, passionate sexual love works as a metaphor through which Wiebe revivifies the familiar Christian abstraction of God's redemptive love for humanity. In A Discovery of Strangers, Wiebe develops an extended metaphor of colonized woman: as the first Franklin expedition advances across the far northern landscape, the beautiful face of Birdseye, a Tetsot'ine woman of great prophetic wisdom, is progressively corroded by disease. Birdseye's fifteen-year-old daughter, Greenstockings, an object of universal male desire, embodies the virgin territory men struggle to possess. Miraculously, given the structural imbalance of power that exists between them, two strangers—Greenstockings and the English midshipman Robert Hood—come momentarily together as lovers by mutual agreement. Although Wiebe does not openly articulate his Mennonite beliefs in A Discovery of Strangers, they hover behind his representation of Tetsot'ine understandings of life as a divine gift and of human beings as spiritually connected with each other and with all living things by sacred ties of mutual physical dependence.
While Wiebe is best known for his novels, he is also skilled in other areas of literature. He is the author of several collections of short stories including The Angel of the Tar Sands and Other Stories, River of Stone: Fictions and Memories, Alberta: A Celebration, and Where Is the Voice Coming From? In Alberta: A Celebration, Wiebe uses a slightly different approach than in his other short story collections. In this work, Wiebe examines the legend of Albert Johnson and attempts to give a new perspective to the Canadian past by combining photographs with accounts of local places and their unique legends.
Wiebe has also composed a play, Far As the Eye Can See, and a children's book entitled Chinook Christmas, in which he writes about Coaldale, Alberta, a small community that he moved to in 1947. Wiebe's most recent work is Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman. This book, which is a chronicle of justice and injustice, tells the true story of the great-great-granddaughter of Cree Chief Big Bear, Yvonne Johnson, who was placed behind bars after being charged with murder. While this work is nonfiction, many critics have claimed that the text reads like a mystery novel. In his writing, Wiebe is successful at uniting realism with passion and reviving the past, so that it can be seen in a fresh light.
—Penny van Toorn,
updated by Marta Krogh
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