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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 2 page 16


One axiom LaDow does reaffirm is that western expansion was more orderly in Canada. The boldest bandits and swindlers, the rowdiest saloon towns, were below the line. The explanation lies in Canada's slower pace of settlement combined with the Mounties' summary powers, which U.S. law enforcers lacked. Of course, some people think the U.S. remains a Wild West to this day, but let that pass. LaDow bristles at "the Americans-as-ruffians view dear to Canadian nationalists." For example, the Cypress Hills Massacre. In June of 1873 in the Cypress Hills region of what is now Saskatchewan, a Canadian and American assortment of hunters, whisky traders, and Métis wagoners, having worked themselves up into a drunken fury, attacked an encampment of Assiniboine, killing 23 of them, under the mistaken conviction that the Indians were horse thieves. A chauvinist Canadian press pointed its finger exclusively at the Yankee interlopers.

Canada's anti-American propaganda tradition, says LaDow, dates from Loyalist days. According to this theory, refugees from the American Revolutionary War permanently infected the Canadian psyche with their bitterness toward the triumphant American republic.

At any rate, settlers poured into the West, lured by railroad promoters touting "scientific dry farming" that would supposedly turn an arid wasteland into a bountiful Eden. (Dry farming, in fact, would culminate in the awful dust bowls of the 1930s.) Both sides of the line soon boasted above-average ethnic diversity by the standards of the time, but it would be an exaggeration to call Canada a mosaic. Natives were marginalized, hispanics and blacks were excluded, the Chinese were head-taxed.

It might be truer to say there was a melting-pot bubbling. Settlers on either side farmed similar square fields, endured the same blizzards and droughts, shared a passion for baseball. The border hardly entered their heads. You just moseyed down the coulee trail and over the sagebrush flats and there you were in, theoretically, another country. Many settlers considered themselves Canadian-American hybrids, or else simply languished in the anomie of being strangers in a strange land.

Finally, it was the relationship with nature — the struggle to harvest the recalcitrant earth under the intoxicating big sky — that implanted a "sense of place" that became the real local identity. LaDow cites novelist Wallace Stegner, who grew up in Eastend, Sask., then migrated to Montana: "I may not know who I am," wrote Stegner, "but I know where I am from."

With globalization, says LaDow, the purpose of nations and borders is uncertain. Medicine Line country seems to prove that belongingness — "the best medicine" — requires no line.

General readers and experts will profit from this book. Whether Beth LaDow resolves her identity dilemma is unclear. Romanticism is a transient refuge. "The Great Spirit makes no lines," a Sioux chieftain once intoned. Well, yes and no. Every group has lines. The Sioux had lines, or else why were they fighting?