Monday, February 18, 2013

W7: Over Prairie Trails

I set out to The Monkey’s Paw on a cool crisp winter afternoon with the intent to pick up my weekly serendipitous book, and after depositing my two dollars into the Biblio-Mat I did indeed procure a thick set of pages bound between two covers in the style that books are apt to come in. Over Prairie Trails by Frederick Philip Grove.

The first warning sign was woodgrain.
Dustjacketless, the pages of this 1929 book are printed on heavy and textured paper stock that is far too extravagant for the content. The cleanness of the typesetting and header bordering evokes a more modern style of design rather than a book over eighty years old. On the inside coversheet, there is a name written in exquisite penmanship - Sylvia Greenwood. That is the most entertaining aspect of this book.

Over Prairie Trails is a curious text in that it is both deceiving long and short. At 231 pages, my first notion was that this book would be a lengthy daunting read, but upon closer inspection I found the author, much like my university self, had inflated the page count of his work with a toolbox of tricks. Why, the first chapter itself does not begin until the nineteenth page! Numbered image and cushioning plates, large margins, and the traditional typesetter double-space after each sentence puts an estimation of the realistic page count at about half. My first notion would turn out to be correct, however, as one hundred fifty pages of a school teacher recalling his thirty-six horse drawn carriage trips taken in one year between school and home through the Canadian prairies is realistically about one hundred forty-nine pages and fifteen sentences too long.

Snow. There is a lot of it. 40 odd pages or so.
The Biblio-Mat does seem to have a sense of humour, though, as chance would have it the day after receiving this book I, too, was struggling through a snowstorm on an often repeated journey across Canada to visit family. Sensing the tone of dry mid-western Canadian literature of my childhood, I had been putting off this book for a few days but decided to start reading when our pilot announced that our aeroplane would be sitting in the runway for no less than two hours as we awaited de-icing. When I woke up 30,000 feet in the air, I had progressed five pages in.

To say Over Prairie Trails was filled with stories that go nowhere would be giving the strings of words in the text too much credit as stories. The first four pages described the minute details of the narrator’s horse as well as all the desired attributes he wanted when he was contemplating the acquisition of said horse, which lead up to summarization in a single line twelve paragraphs later that this horse could indeed do all the things horses generally do. The ramblings of the most senile television characters are put to shame. One of my least favourite books, The English Patient, would often devolve into describing the mundane with sweeping paragraphs describing the way shadows tend to reflect on walls, wavering ever so gently. Over Prairie Trails had a thirty-five page chapter exploring how interesting it is that fog appears to be made of tiny moisture droplets. For anyone that has ever traveled on a paved road, I very much consider the ability to read this book all the way through as a feat of mental strength.

The phantom shadow was a tree. No jest.
Taken in a participatory art-form point of view, however, this book would be a work of genius as nothing invokes the mind-numbing uneventfulness of traveling fifty miles through the frozen Canadian prairies than reading about the journey repeatedly. Recommended only for those that enjoy long non-comedic meandering lectures about nothing. 

Book rating: 3/10 (if this book had a dustjacket, it would be solid brown)

Random quote: "When I come to the home of frog and toad, of gartersnake and owl and whip-poor-will, a great tenderness takes possession of me, and I should like to shield and help them all and tell them not to be afraid of me; but I rather think they know it anyway."


  1. This is a great idea for a blog project and a funny post! Groves' generation may have had an advantage over ours' in being able to contemplate things at length without needing to be excited. But if you do want some excitement, I recommend his classic short story, "Snow". It's about surviving, and not surviving, the prairie winter. You might also be interested in Quill & Quire's take on Over Prairie Trails where a reviewer called it "a defining Canadian text":

  2. Thanks! My week has been made knowing that another person in the last ten years has read this book. It's not the most horrible book I've ever read but it's amazingly dry, as if the essence of the Canadian prairies was distilled into paper pulp and ink. I think the reviewer at Quill & Quire summed it up pretty well when he said "Nothing particularly momentous happens on any of these trips". I will try to hunt down that short story, though, if nothing else than to give Grove a chance at redemption.