Wolf Willow – a portrait of the Plains

The short story embedded in the middle of Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner is now one of my favorite short stories. And, the rest of the book, which was first published in 1955, is one of the best I’ve read during the past year.

Stegner spent part of his growing-up years in the small town of Eastend, Saskatchewan in the northern Great Plains just east of the Cypress Hills. In Wolf Willow, Stegner creates the fictional town of Whitemud, Saskatchewan as the surrogate setting for his remembrances.

The Plains are the book’s main character. The physical reality of the Plains always has the final word. The people who have lived there, or in some cases attempted to live there–Native Americans, metis (a people of mixed French and Indian heritage), cattle ranchers, wheat farmers–adapt as best they know how to the extreme weather, the lack of trees, the isolation, and a host of other factors that make this region something far less than ideal for human habitation.

A few “stickers” among the non-native settlers successfully adapt and stay on, and even a few of their children and grandchildren. But, for many of the Canadians and Americans who attempted to make a life on the northern Great Plains of Canada, in fact most of them if Stegner is to be believed, the harsh, grim, drought-prone, lonely Plains prove too inhospitable.

“The Whitemud River Range,” is the name of the short story found in the middle of the book. It is a dramatic tale of just how brutal the Plains can be. The story follows a band of cowboys through the early weeks of the frigid winter of 1906-07 as they attempt–again and again–to round up the cattle for their ranch and keep them from freezing. Eventually, in the teeth of a howling blizzard the task shifts to saving their own lives.

If that sounds like a Jack London short story set in northern Canada, well, there are some parallels. But, I much prefer this story of Stegner’s. Despite the grim setting, the cowboys are a more likable and more human collection of characters than those I’ve encountered in London’s stories.

Wolf Willow is hard to categorize with its mixture of memoir, history, geography, and fiction. I found it a fascinating mixture and a wonderful evocation of the spirit of a place where I’ve never been but which I am now unlikely to forget any time soon.