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Review: Trevor Harriot’s Towards a Prairie Atonement, Bill Waiser’s A World We Have Lost, and Julie Salverson’s Lines of Flight

A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905

By Bill Waiser

Fifth House, 624 pages, $70

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What is the world we have lost? As historian Bill Waiser suggests in the epilogue to his recent history, which won the 2016 Governor-General's Literary Award for Non-fiction, when Saskatchewan became a province in 1905, it turned its back on its history. Where for millenniums indigenous peoples inhabited diverse landscapes, cultivating the land's many resources and adapting to ecological change, by 1905 the province had its blinkers on: monoculture (wheat) farmed by homesteaders (settlers) in the grassland (in the south). For more than two centuries, Europeans relied on indigenous peoples for knowledge and survival, yet the 1906 census did not even include Métis as a category – they literally did not count. True to his word, Waiser covers the land's long pre-1905 history – starting with the Wisconsin glacier 18,000 years ago. The author's commitment to this timespan means the early chapters especially feel somewhat introductory (the latter half, which covers roughly a century, is more in-depth). Nevertheless, Waiser's effort to turn Saskatchewan history on its head is to be applauded.

Towards a Prairie Atonement

By Trevor Herriot

University of Regina Press, 110 pages, $22.95

This short, impassioned book is in a way a case study picking up where A World We Have Lost leaves off. "Only 3.5 per cent of the native grassland in Canada's Prairie Ecozone has any form of protection," Trevor Herriot writes. "The little that remains, our fragments of old-growth prairie, are every bit as diverse and irreplaceable as Canada's last refuges of old-growth forest." In Towards a Prairie Atonement, Herriot asks how inheritors of settlerism can atone to the land, and looks to the Métis ethic of "the hay privilege" as an example of the Commonwealth. In the process, he recounts a history of dispossession, from the Battle of Seven Oaks to the Red River Rebellion to the present. "We were good caretakers of the land," Norman Fleury writes in his afterword. "We still are." Herriot makes a strong case about a historical injustice – social and ecological – that has carried through to today, but I wanted to hear more about indigenous participation in this contemporary.

Lines of Flight: An Atomic Memoir

By Julie Salverson

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Wolsak and Wynn, 224 pages, $20

In the winter of 2001, Julie Salverson faced a crisis. Her work, as a playwright telling the stories of survivors of violence, left her drained. After returning from a research trip touring Holocaust museums in Germany, her acupuncturist asked, "Next time, why don't you research paradise?" A week later, her friend, Peter van Wyck, called her. The uranium used in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was mined near a Dene community in Northwest Territories. Would she like to join him on a research project? Salverson's exhaustion said no; her personal history compelled her to said yes. Van Wyck turned his research into the unconventional academic book, The Highway of the Atom; Salverson, into the opera Shelter, and now this, her "atomic memoir" about victimization, apology and the personal brought to bear in bearing witness. While each memoir treads its own ground, readers who enjoyed Joy Kogawa's Gently to Nagasaki will find this a complementary title – a different take on similar themes.

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