Way back around 1970, that was how I first came to read The Studhorse Man. I was a Calgary Herald reporter covering Alberta provincial politics in Edmonton and became aware somehow (probably a review) that the Legislative Building where I had my office featured in the novel, published in 1969. Here is how author Robert Kroetsch begins that particular section:
He had been carried, under the kind lady’s supervision, into the museum. The provincial museum at that time was housed in the Legislative Building. Even today you can ride an elevator to the fifth floor and examine the room, though now it contains the centennial carillon console and a row of twelve chairs. Granted, the Misericordia Hosptial is only a few short blocks distant, but on that stormy night the streets were nearly impassable. The lady in question made a snap decision.
The “he” of that quote is an injured Hazard Lepage, the studhorse man of the novel’s title. And the “she” is P. Coburne or Cochrane or Cockburn (both Hazard and the biographer who is writing the book that tells his story are uncertain). P.’s specialty is making life-size wax figures of historically prominent Albertans for the museum; the two have sex in “an exact replica of the chief factor’s bedroom as it existed in the “Big House”, the main residence of the Hudson’s Bay post that gave the city its name.”
I walked past that area every working day on my way to the Leg Building cafeteria (as noted the museum had moved to its own building many years earlier) so I was naturally interested. But by the time I got to that section (the quote comes from page 34 of the novel) I was already hooked on Kroetsch’s book. As were others, it should be noted — The Studhorse Man won Canada’s 1969 Governor General’s award for fiction.
So let’s go back to the start and find out how the injured, but still sexually capable, Hazard Lepage happened to be carried into the provincial museum, with its “exact replica” bed.
As the book opens, the studhorse man, devoted to preserving the Lepage breed, needs to get hold of a mare:
He was a truly desperate man. Extinction or survival was quite simply to be the fate of the breed of horse he alone had preserved through six generations; thus, penniless as he was, and he had been reduced to living on porridge for nearly a month, he had hit on a scheme of somehow buying a mare. With commendable determination he found a neighbor who would sell his single remaining horse for twenty dollars — upon closing his fist on spot cash. “No money, no mare,” the unkind neighbor commented to clinch the deal, as if Hazard might not be financially reliable.
Fortunately, the war was in progress; the government was scouring Alberta for bones. BONES FOR WAR, the ads and posters read:
BRING IN YOUR BONES
WE PAY CASH
As it happens, Hazard from his travels with his stud “knew where to find every skeleton of a cow, every buffalo skull, even, it must be added, every carcass of a horse” and he has little trouble collecting $20 worth to sell to the corrupt Tad Proudfoot, source of the ad. The collection area is crowded with others on the same mission and Hazard’s “sale” does not go well when he upsets Proudfoot:
“Okay, okay,” Tad was shouting now, directing his forces, especially the men he had hired to load his mounds of bones into boxcars. “We’ve got to show this yellowbelly.” He waved his cane upright before his own stomach as he led his doughty band. “This pea-soup loafer. This hairy lunatic.” Tad was making the kind of irresponsible remark that absolutely infuriates me. “This maniac who peddles horse cock from farm to farm when nobody wants horses.”
If you haven’t figured it out yet, The Studhorse Man is a comic novel and it soon moves into high gear. The BONES FOR WAR site turns into a mob scene. Hazard manages to escape with Poseidon, his “blue” stallion, and scrambles aboard a nearby boxcar, part of a train he thinks is heading east. Alas, it is going west and when he wakes he finds himself in Edmonton.
Worse yet, he (and Poseidon) are in a slaughterhouse stockyard filled with horses. Lepage is up to the challenge:
It has been argued that to this day a few wild horses survive in the coulees and ravines of the North Saskatchewan River, there in the heart of the city of Edmonton. At any rate, nearly a thousand horses were in the stockpens the morning of Hazard’s arrival, all of them destined for the barrel, can or box, destined to feed the dogs and cats of this fat and ungrateful nation. How many had actually been shot and butchered by noon is undetermined; not more than forty, I would guess.
[Hazard turns the whole lot loose.]
It was four o’clock in the afternoon when the main herd of nearly eight hundred hit Jasper Avene at 101st Street [that is downtown Edmonton's main intersection]; thousands of people were beginning to file into the streets, wondering how best to get home through the drifts piled up by the blizzard. The City Police and the RCMP now recognized the need for immediate action; they began by closing off all exits from the center of the city. And yet, while they managed to contain the horses, they had not the means by which to capture them. The mayor asked the army to move in; troops were camped on the Exhibition Grounds, they rolled down Jasper Avenue in troop carriers.
Escaping that mess is how Hazard ends up at the Legislative Building, only a few blocks from the central intersection. And that exaggerated, fantastic scene had an eerie air of reality to it on my recent reading — while I had scheduled the rereading of this novel more than six months ago, I ended up finally getting to it while “stranded” with Mrs. KfC in Lake Louise, with road closures resulting from the worst flood in a century preventing our return to Calgary. For the first time in the 50 years that I had lived in the city, tens of thousands were evacuated from their homes, the army was called in and troops were camped in the city. Okay, it was water, not horses, but even in Alberta this sort of thing does not happen that often.
All of the above takes place in the first 34 pages of a 204-page book. Hazard Lepage will move from one ludicrous scene to another as it progresses: taking shelter in a nunnery where there is a never-stopping rummy game in progress (he can’t lose a hand and the Superior won’t let him leave the game); getting shot in the butt at a coyote hunt (with an extended recovery scene of several weeks that still makes me laugh out loud); crossing a flooded river (the novel proved very, very topical, I must say) and a host more. It is not a spoiler to say Poseidon goes along with him, although the two are occasionally separated for varying periods.
The Studhorse Man is definitely a comic novel, but it is also much more. In another example of serendipitous timing, just this weekend Edmonton author Todd Babiuk had this to say in recommending it in a Globe and Mail Canada Day feature on books to read if you want to understand various areas of the country:
I once thought Alberta was too new to sustain fiction. This was, of course, stupid. Edmonton has been a centre for trade and ceremony for at least 8,000 years. I was living in Montreal when I discovered The Studhorse Man, a wild and lusty novel that creates an Edmonton and an Alberta of the imagination. The High Level Bridge, downtown taverns, urban forests, even the legislative building are places of mystery and sex and betrayal and heartbreak – as authentic as Saint Urbain Street.
And if you can find a copy of the University of Alberta Press version that I read (it is the one pictured at the top of this review and Indigo.ca says it can get copies within 3 to 5 weeks), you will find a 16-page introduction from Alberta author, academic and critic Aritha van Herk who was a student at U of A, just across the river from the Legislative Building, when the novel appeared (she notes it was the first novel she read in her first English course which was in Canadian literature). (When Hazard departs the Legislature Building, there is an hilarious scene involving Hazard, a truck driver and passing U of A co-eds at the south end of the High Level bridge, literally right below where van Herk’s residence was.) She opens her essay by casting the entire story as a metaphor for present-day Alberta:
These horses, imaginary or real, are the legacy of this wildly anarchic odyssey through Alberta. More than any other novel by Robert Kroetsch, The Studhorse Man explores the principles of restlessness and desire, movement madness so much part of Alberta’s DNA. Innocent contemporary readers may need the precise role of the studhorse man explained; in fact, he is the grandfather of all persistent car salesmen. This novel pretends to be about horses but, surrounded by automobiles, these horses symbolize the cusp between their vanishing world and the current world of thoughtless, gas-guzzling highway transportation, the life-blood of this province.
I’ve offered those quotes from Babiuk and van Herk because when I included it in this project I was uncertain how well this novel would age (or travel) when I read it this time around. Certainly, anyone who wants to understand Alberta and its roots will find it invaluable. And I think the quotes from those two authors illustrate that it would yield results for any reader interested in how “frontiers” (be they Canadian, American or Australian) began developing into the modern, resource-based economic power houses that they are today. For this reader, The Studhorse Man turned out to be one of those very rare novels that had even more to say on a reread forty years after I first read it than it did the first time around. Kroetsch was more prescient than even he might have imagined.
The Studhorse Man marks the halfway point in KfC’s 2013 project of rereading 12 Canadian novels that influenced me in my youth — and also the end of Phase One of the project. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I met or interviewed the authors of all six of the novels that I have read so far (you can find links to reviews in the right sidebar). Starting next month, we move into more traditional Canadian classics. First up will be Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners. Ironically (or perhaps a reflection that I chose well), it too was featured in that Globe article on books to read if you want to understand Canada — author David Bergen (who won the Giller Prize for The Time In Between) says it is the novel that best captures Manitoba.