I chose Wild Geese as my final Canada Reads: Independently selection because it was the only one I’d already read, and therefore if I was late finishing it—and I was—I’d be able to vote on a winner knowing that I had read all the books. Summarizing Ostenso’s novel is difficult without making it sound like a CanLit stereotype. It is, after all, a family drama set against the backdrop of a poor, isolated farming community on the windswept Manitoba plains. To say that it’s about a young girl wanting to escape a domineering father, and a school teacher who falls in love with a young man with a shame hanging over his head so secret that even he doesn’t know of it… well, we’re into the realm of melodramatic stereotypes, into the realm of being force-fed books like Who Has Seen the Wind back in high school. Wild Geese has things in common with books like that, but it crackles with a tension all its own, and possesses a most unusual quality for a prairie novel: it is claustrophobic.
Caleb Gare is not a large man, nor is he particularly strong. The young Mark Jordan, raised as a city boy into a spiritual and intellectual life, is able to throw him around like a rag doll when he loses his temper. And yet Caleb has a grip over his family so tight that not only do they not hope for a better life, but hoping for a better life is something that wouldn’t even occur to them. Caleb uses a passive-aggressive ruthlessness, and at times even direct threats, to keep many of the other local farmers similarly under his thumb (I find that in this way Wild Geese is a kind of cousin to the comedy of manners; it’s most often through adroit manipulation of social pressures and conventions that Caleb achieves his goals). He cares only about himself and the land, a relationship that Ostenso describes with almost sexual fervor. Caleb is a shadow cast over the entire novel, his presence felt in every scene whether he’s involved or not, and the whole of Wild Geese is fraught with the threat of violence or shame. All the open space, the infinite sky, it may as well not exist because of Caleb Gare. Even though I’d read the book before and knew how it would turn out, I was gripped by the tension.
There are problems with the novel that I didn’t notice the first time I read it. There are quirks of diction and phrasing that smack of an era rather than an individual voice, and the romance between Lind Archer and Mark Jordan, though it works as a more abstract, spiritual foil for the very physical romance between Judith and Sven, sometimes swings too deeply into the territory of the chaste, bloodless kind of thing that the rest of the novel is written against. And since we’re on influences, I can’t speak to the accuracy of this, because I have not read them, but I was told in the Modern Canadian Literature class where I was first introduced to Wild Geese, that it’s plotted in the pattern of the Icelandic Sagas. It would be fascinating to look at them side by side.