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ARCHIVED - Canada: A Literary Tour

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Literary Landscapes

The Prairies

(English Literature)

A Reflection of Our Need for Flatness
by Erica Kelly, University of Western Ontario

White 50-cent stamp with a colour illustration of a street lined with low-rise buildings, lampposts and a grain elevator

Postage stamp depicting a Prairie town street scene, July 6, 1978


Fiction and poetry of the Canadian Prairies often assigns a starring role to the landscape itself. Extremes of weather hit full force on the open prairie, leaving inhabitants exposed and isolated as they fight to define their relationship to their place, each other, and themselves. The vast seas of prairie land are represented as both overwhelming and exhilarating.

Mrs. Bentley, for example, the narrator whose diaries form the text of Sinclair Ross's prairie fiction classic As For Me and My House (1941), is both attracted to and terrified of the prairie landscape. She walks out into the land to escape the narrow-mindedness of weather-beaten Horizon, but must return to the town for refuge. To Mrs. Bentley, her small prairie town "seems huddled together, cowering on a high, tiny perch, afraid to move lest it topple into the wind."

White 46-cent stamp with a colour illustration of a man with a prairie landscape in the background

Postage stamp depicting W.O. Mitchell, the Prairie Son, February 17, 2000


Prairie novels regularly feature characters pulled between solitude and community. Both Martha Ostenso's Wild Geese (1925) and W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind (1947), for example, follow characters coming of age on the prairie, investigating for themselves the necessary balance between the individual and the land.

Anne Szumigalski, in her poem "The Bees" (1983), writes that "the prairie is a reflection of our need for flatness." This awareness of land as social construction is increasingly apparent in recent scholarship, which challenges critics' tendency to label the land as antagonist in prairie literature. Instead, it advocates a more holistic view of the relationships between character, place, culture, and history. Robert Kroetsch is one of the most vocal in the call to reconsider the prairie. His long poem Seed Catalogue (1977) challenges its audience to understand both poem and landscape as palimpsest, as social constructions subject to archaeological discovery.

While prairie literature has expanded its range to a new extreme, the land continues to play an important role, often defining both character and community. In Sinclair Ross's Horizon, Margaret Laurence's Manawaka, Thomas King's Truth and Bright Water, Sandra Birdsell's Agassiz, and Miriam Toews's East Village, the prairie landscape, in all its seasons, shapes the trajectory of the story.

See also The Prairies (French Literature)