Sunday, July 3, 2011

Remembering Robert Kroetsch

Like everyone else who follows the world of Canadian literature, I was saddened by the passing of Robert Kroetsch a few days ago.

I first came across his celebrated novel The Studhorse Man in the 1990s, while taking a university course in western Canadian literature. The book was right up my alley – great story, told in an absurd and comical tone. I was clearly not alone in my opinion, because the novel had won the Governor-General’s literary award in 1969. The Studhorse Man is only one of countless literary accomplishments; Robert Kroetsch is a Canadian literary icon.

So I was fairly intimidated when I came face to face with the great man in the lobby of St. Michael’s Retreat during the Sage Hill Writing Experience in 2004. Robert Kroetsch had an imposing air – tall, serious-looking, lots of white hair – and on top of that, he’d just been awarded the Order of Canada. I couldn’t muster up the courage to choke out congratulations – I just slithered off to the side and let him pass in silence.

Not that it mattered. Our paths didn’t cross much at Sage Hill – he was there to teach the upper echelon, the novelists; I was taking an introductory fiction class. And then came the evening of the softball game.

I played ball throughout my childhood. Why I stuck with it is one of the great mysteries of our time, because I was really, really bad at it. One year they made me pitch – the ball flew out of my hand too high, too wide, bounced off the ground. I walked almost every batter I faced. They tried to make me short stop, but my ability to stop anything short was practically non-existent, so I was relegated to left field. There I still managed to do my bit to ensure we lost every game. But the most horrifying, humiliation-inducing part of the whole experience was batting – facing down some smug, hot-shot pitcher, swinging at the bad pitches, letting the good ones go by, the gleeful tone in the ump’s voice as he shouted “yer out!”, the ignominy of trudging back to the bench, dragging my bat behind me.

So imagine my surprise and delight when, my first time up to bat at Sage Hill, I actually hit the ball. I didn’t hit it far, so – desperate to make up for a lifetime of softball inadequacy – I flung aside my bat and raced toward first base. Then something happened. I’m not sure if I leaned too far forward, or if my foot slipped, but the next thing I knew I was lying on the ground staring into the eyes of Sage Hill’s Executive Director who was asking if I was all right.

I won’t talk about the bruises and the road rash up my entire left side, or the fact that my head had bounced so hard when it hit the ground that my glasses were almost destroyed and one of my heavy duty earrings (the ones they use to actually pierce your ears) snapped apart and was left lying in the dirt. You know those birds that twitter around the heads of cartoon characters after they take a knock to the noggin? That was me.

After an initial assessment of my injuries, the rest of the gang headed back out onto the field. Robert Kroetsch, who had come out to watch the game, was put in charge of me. Oh, boy. There we sat, me blubbering and shaking, Robert looking taciturn as ever. He was undoubtedly cursing the fates that inflicted the crying woman on him, disturbing his peaceful enjoyment of the game. As I sneaked a peek sideway, Robert fidgeted. Despite my rattled brains, it occurred to me that the man might be shy. Even the most ardent conversationalist would have trouble engaging with me in my current state. If the next two hours weren’t going to be absolute misery for us both, I'd have to give the guy something to work with.

“I really liked The Studman Man,” I snivelled.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

Silence. I took a breath and tried again.

“I read it for a course at Athabasca University.” My voice was still shaking.

“Did you?” He turned to me. “Who taught the course?”

It turned out my professor was a fellow member of the board of NeWest Press. I mentioned that I had travelled to Oxford to take a summer course from the same professor, and had enjoyed it very much. I realized I had managed to squeak out that information in close-to-normal tone of voice.

Robert asked me where I was from. It turned out that he had also lived in the North many years before, working on the barges on the Mackenzie River.

“Have you written about it?” I asked.

It turned out he had not.

“Well, I think you should. That part of our history is fading away, and it would take someone like you to really do it justice.”

He said he would consider it. We talked more about the Northwest Territories, and he asked me what I was working on – a collection of short stories set in Yellowknife, I said. Just as my team was coming off the field, Robert was suggesting that, when I was finished with my manuscript, I send it to NeWest for their consideration. One of my fellow writing students stopped in her tracks, and someone else rolled his eyes. If they thought I was exaggerating my injuries to have a private audience with Robert Kroetsch, I couldn’t blame them.

We had a lovely chat. Before I knew it, the game had ended and we went our separate ways. I bought a re-issued version of The Studhorse Man at Sage Hill, and asked Robert to sign it. The inscription reads: “To Cathy – For the pleasure of our Sage Hill conversation about the North. Robert Kroetsch, Aug. 2004.”

The pleasure was all mine, Robert.