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False Front

 

After a lapse of years we return to the little town of Eastend, Saskatchewan, boyhood home of Wallace Stegner, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. This place is the subject of Stegner’s celebrated memoir, Wolf Willow. We often forget that it also is the home of six-hundred-and-some people, all of whom have their own stories to tell.

 

Stegner as a lad experienced the hurley-burley and the optimistic ozone of the frontier days of the 1910s. A generation later he returned to the old home town, did some research, collected his memories, wrote his book, and closed it with a chapter called “False Front Athens.” Here he assesses whether Eastend (called Whitemud in his book) has lived up to its promise.

 

In a word – no. In a passage famous for its acidity, Stegner writes, “Dead, dead, dead says the mind contemplating the town’s life. . . . A dull, dull little town where nothing passes but the wind.” In particular, he concludes that no one of intellectual bent could live there. He makes certain exceptions for the local historian, Corky Jones, and the blacksmith, Jack Wilkinson, who built his own astronomical observatory.

 

So, still another generation passes, and here we come to Eastend, Stegner’s home town, in many ways everybody’s home town on the plains, and we think about what he wrote. Like him, too, we nose around and talk to people.

 

We think perhaps Stegner was unduly harsh. In the first place, Corky Jones and Jack Wilkinson were even more remarkable individuals than Stegner told us. Reading what Jones wrote, I figure he was not just a happy amateur, but a serious thinker about local history. Moreover, his pioneering work in paleontology has earned the respect of modern professionals. Jack Wilkinson not only built a telescope in his blacksmith shop but also gathered around him a regular club of working machinists who would wheel it out into the starry night and take turns contemplating the universe.

 

When Wilkinson died, an astronomy club formed to preserve and operate his equipment. In Eastend this summer we spent a lovely evening with Sig and Deb Giverhaug, who, after a lapse of years, have revived the astronomy club again. We also met other people who were making art, discussing books, and investigating their history in Eastend.

 

Our view of the intellectual community of Eastend broadened when we spent an afternoon in the museum. One exhibit after another showed the work of citizens who were building airplanes, collecting artifacts and fossils, making music, and in other ways engaging in the life of the mind. Not to over-romanticize this—it is not a town of philosopher kings—but Eastend has never been dead.

 

Which still brings us back to Stegner’s question of whether a real intellectual—such as he—could live in such a town. The answer is not categorical. Could an intellectual live in a prairie town? Of course. Could Wallace Stegner—with his bag of boyhood and adult experiences—live in Eastend? No. And that has to do both with Eastend and with him.

 

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