16 February 2023
A desolate prairie scene featuring a grey sky and a weather-beaten barbed-wire fence, with green grass in the foreground and sere hills in the background.

by Dawn Morgan
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Madonna Hamel
$24.95 ISBN 9780889778573

Subtitled A Reckoning in the Great Plains, Unsettled is a labour of love that, like all true reckonings, took a long time to take shape. The book revolves around four “lost anchor” events and the author Dawn Morgan’s urge to reconcile herself to them: the death of an old rancher who was gored by a bull bison named King, the death of King himself, the subsequent death of her father by suicide, and the disappearance of Assiniboine who once inhabited the land her ancestors settled.

Morgan is a deft handler of the English language. She can weave disparate sources together to create connection and meaning where none was previously evident. In her heart-wrenching, sometimes comic, mostly conciliatory, search for release from her haunting past she introduces us to the poetry of Andrew Suknaski, examines the papers of the Palliser Expedition, dips into the diaries of Métis guide Peter Erasmus, detours into country-western lyrics, then veers into the writings of German philosopher Theodor Adorno. She reflects on Hemingway’s take on bullfighting, the life of Spanish gauchos, and Kafka’s novel “Amerika.”

Reading Unsettled is a lot like being a passenger in a car driven by a lost soul. In fact, while Morgan criss-crosses the country she is overtaken with an urge to veer over a cliff or drive into another lane, so powerful is her grief. You get the sense at those moments she’ll grab at anything to find a reason to stay alive, to replace her lost anchors.

She examines Saskatchewan’s history of treatment of Indigenous people and land with an unflinching eye and in a way that asks us to both skip the vituperative and jettison our “imperial nostalgia.” Morgan asks: “Who does not long to redress the crimes of the past, resurrect the dead and return the land to its original inhabitants?” But, she says, settlers, whether her parents or our grandparents, would never see themselves as guilty, “given what they were fleeing and the hardships endured in getting here.”

Morgan marvels at writers who can combine genres, including “lament, diatribe, tragedy, novel essay, autobiography, epic memoir, confession, eulogy, travelogue…all of them untrammelled by form.” It’s not surprising that she trusts such books, as this is how she writes. It could be said of Unsettled that it is, to paraphrase her praise of other works, more a manual on how to shape the truth, and less the truth itself. The deep consideration of all the events, both personal and historical, that formed Morgan’s life and the West as a whole, make this a book worth reading, once for its story and twice for it breath and depth.


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