Badlands was Kroetsch's next novel after Gone Indian. While some aspects of post modern fiction linger, this is a bit more in the vein of Studhorse Man where some events are outsized, maybe even a tiny bit absurd (shades of magic realism), but we are more in the realm of tall tales (think Paul Bunyan) than Paul Auster. While the entire novel is initially framed through the perspective of Anne Dawe (the daughter of the main character), we aren't given any reason to think she is playing games with what actually happened or that she is a particularly unreliable narrator. However, the narrative does shift away from what might reasonably have been recorded in her father's journals and many of the core chapters are written about these past events from an omniscient perspective. Pretty typical in movies and fiction for that matter: we start in the present going over someone's diaries, then there is a flashback to what "really" happened. One of the more effective uses of this was in the play Three Days of Rain.
The basic set-up is that William Dawe lead an expedition into the Canadian Badlands, looking for a dinosaur bones. While the odds are against him, particularly due to the inexperience of his crew, he makes a major find. He makes a minor name for himself and begins making annual expeditions to the Badlands. He essentially abandons his wife and young daughter, only making short visits between his expeditions. Ten years after his death, Anna, his daughter, starts going through his diary and eventually decides to retrace his first successful expedition. She runs across the Native American guide (Anna Yellowbird) who helped save her father on more than one occasion.
The bulk of the book is the expedition itself, particularly the inner conflicts between the various team members. (Often these chapters are framed with William's official journal entries.) It is hard to imagine a more disorganized crew. Towards the end, they have to recruit a very young man, who is a piano player in a whore house they encounter along the way. However, he does have some experience mining, and it is he who (fatefully of course) places the dynamite that they need to uncover enough of the main dinosaur skeleton to dig out the rest of the bones.
There are a few scenes that really do stick out -- the itinerant photographer (in a Model T Ford!) who takes a photo of the crew setting out for the Badlands and assures them they won't make it back out. The same photographer does take their photo on the way home. The house made of bones that Anna Yellowbird inhabits for a while. The ruckus/rumpus that Anna D. and Anna Y. get up to while retracing this expedition. I did feel sorry for Anna D. when she decided not to go off and sleep with the cowboy under the stars when she clearly wanted to. Not sure what Kroetsch was up to there. There are actually some odd parallels with his final novel (The Man From the Creeks) which is about a boy and his mother who go up into the Yukon to strike it rich (in the original gold rush) and he becomes a piano player in a saloon. He becomes quite old (like Anna Yellowbird) and is another case of thwarted sexuality (like Anna Dawe) where it seems so unnecessary. He ends up owning a saloon filled with cheap floozies for goodness sakes! I don't really care how hard you fell for your first puppy-love, over the next 50-60 years, it seems likely that one would indulge in the pleasures of the flesh as it were. But Kroetsch often writes about people that find themselves in impossible loves and don't try very hard to extricate themselves.
What is a bit different between the books is that while the mania for digging strikes all these characters hard, only a much smaller percentage of people lose their mind over dinosaur bones compared to prospecting for gold. It's not a bad book, but it isn't one I imagine I'll be rereading any time soon.
This is review 8/13.