Perdue: Or How the West Was Lost
Matt Hartman is a freelance editor and cataloguer, running Hartman Cataloguing, Editing and Indexing Services.
After earlier tackling the intricacies of poetry (Trapline) and drama (Saskatoon Pie, The Running of the Deer), Ursell has now turned his considerable creative talents to fiction.
Perdue is a clever choice of title. As a city, it exists in the centre of Saskatchewan, on the CPR right-of-way between Biggar and Saskatoon. In French, of course, the word means “lost,” and serves as an introduction to the subtitle.
Perdue is also the main character in the novel; through him the history of the Prairies unfolds. Ursell has fashioned a volume of mythology comprised of short, sensuous, surrealistic chapters. Repetition, the accumulation of detail, the symbolic use of names — all are devices used well and often. Thus, Perdue’s mother is “Gal Sal,” his father is “Sir” the spirit and strength of the Prairies is symbolized in the character of a giant. The events which transpire in the novel are cataclysmic, brutal, epic. The buffalo slaughter is a good example:
All that day the buffalo came, the men shot, the blood rose higher and higher. The men stood up to shoot. The blood rose to their knees. By afternoon the entire plain was covered with blood, a lake of blood that lapped at the foundations of the house and barn and woodpile, circled them, flowed ponderously towards the river...
Ursell telescopes events in time, juxtaposes these historical checkpoints, signifies them within the life of his hero. There are the Indian massacres, the dust bowl droughts, the Great Depression, the World Wars; everything revolves around Perdue’s house and garden which, magically, remained untouched.
Perdue won’t be approved by some readers; its heavy, dense prose fails in many spots. The imagery is often unnecessarily lush, bludgeoning the sense of the passage. But the novel does mark a departure from Prairie realism, and it is both daring and inventive. Ursell bears watching. And reading.