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Short Stories > "Wilderness Tips" by Margaret Atwood

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Barbara | 4837 comments I've only read Oryx and Crake, Alias Grace, a few short stories and some poetry by Margaret Atwood previously so I don't have a wide range of comparison. However, I believe this story goes to the top of my list of favorites by her. I've never come to the point of taking for granted that a writer will be able to give me a whole background of multiple characters in a short story. And, once again, I am amazed.

We start with George who survived post-war conditions in Hungary after the war and emigrated to Canada. He's a survivor and feeds off the grandchildren of another survivor who made his money off the railroads. His grandchildren seem like puffballs in comparison to these two. Did you all feel the connection between these two men over time?

There were some excerpts that I couldn't help underlining. Prue's smile: It's a smile that wavers like a gasoline slick on water, shining, changing tone.

And, the comparison between Hungary and Canada and George's relation to them:
George takes one more look at the paper. Quebec is talking Separatism: there are Mohawks behind the barricades near Montreal, and people are throwing stones at them; word is the country is falling apart. George is not worried: he's been in countries that were falling apart before. There can be opportunities. As for the fuss people here make about language, he doesn't understand it. What's a second language or a third, or a fourth? George himself speaks five, if you count Russian, which he would prefer not to. As for the stone-throwing, it's typical. Not bombs, not bullets, stones. Even the uproar here is muted.


Ruth | 8434 comments Shoot. I'm at our cabin. The anthology is home.


Mike Staten (Caeliban) | 422 comments This is the first I've read from her. The shifts in perspective were executed perfectly. Wonderful transitions.


Roxanne (RoxanneBCB) | 435 comments I have read this selection. It seemed pretty straightforward to me - but I must admit I was sort of skimming. Any thoughts?


A.J. Atwood is up to her old tricks here, or at least, she is self-consciously referring to her old tricks.

The "wilderness" setting invites comparisons to Surfacing, Atwood's second novel, and to Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, which was written at around the same time, some 20 years before this story.

Survival belongs to a nationalist attempt to define Canadian literature in the 1960s and early 70s, and many people today regard it as rather silly. (Indeed, Atwood has said that it has now been overtaken by events.) It attempts to define Canadian literature in opposition to American literature, defining Canlit's central theme as mere survival in place of the great American themes of taming the wilderness and pushing west towards possibility. Americans conquer the wilderness, according to Atwood; Canadians just build a cabin and hang on through the winter.

Wacousta Lodge, named for one of the supposed progenitors of Canlit, Wacousta, seems to undermine this idea. It comes complete with a survival manual (Wilderness Tips), which only Roland has actually read, but otherwise is a place of deck chairs, sunscreen and lazy afternoons. The most significant trial anyone here must endure is the noisy passage of a motorboat.

The contrast between George and Roland revolves around hunting. George is continually described as a predator: his smile shows his canines and he is described as "vulpine." In the 1950s, the family sees him as exotic and faintly dangerous, and he views Canadians as soft, naive suckers. (He is not dissimilar to the protagonist of Rawi Hage's Cockroach.) George plays to win, and he wants to win solely for the sake of winning.

Roland is ironically named for the great soldier of French legend who was killed fighting a rearguard action against invading Moors. There seems little risk here that George, cast as invading Moor, will bother killing Roland; he'll just ignore him. Roland has given up hunting, because he doesn't see the point in collecting trophies. He has discarded his childhood interest in Wilderness Tips. Nowadays, he just chops wood, no doubt Atwood's play on boring Canadians (Roland has, George thinks, the inner life of a stump) as "hewers of wood and drawers of water."

Atwood seems to refer back to Surfacing, in which hunting stands for sexual conquest. George, the hunter, has already bagged two trophies here at Wacousta Lodge; Roland remains unmarried.

Atwood's Canadians here are not hardy survivors; they are soft and inept. George, the immigrant, is a survivor; he has done the things described in Wilderness Tips. One of the criticisms of Atwood's Survival is that it is completely out of touch with the reality of Canadian literature today: Canlit is no longer the preserve of the Toronto and Montreal WASP establishment, educated at McGill and U of T, but is increasingly concerned with the experience of immigrants and marginalized groups. Twenty years after the fact, is this story Atwood's own sly revision of Survival?

The three sisters recall another Atwoodian trope, Hecate, the three-headed goddess. This appears in The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle (at least), in which women see themselves in a three-way mirror, and Atwood self-consciously explains it in Survival. Here, Atwood seems to have split women into three "types"; what are we to make of this? Pamela, with her love of wordplay, resembles Atwood herself. Did she cast herself in her story? And does George conquer Pamela, or does Pamela, in the end, put paid to George?


Roxanne (RoxanneBCB) | 435 comments A.J. wrote: "Atwood is up to her old tricks here, or at least, she is self-consciously referring to her old tricks.

The "wilderness" setting invites comparisons to Surfacing, Atwood's second novel..."


A.J., thank you for your fascinating post. I am out of my league on this one. But I will be paying attention and learning.


Mike Staten (Caeliban) | 422 comments AJ - Thanks for putting this in the larger context of Canadian literature and Atwood's production. The idea that she is revising her earlier thesis makes sense.

One example that drives home the difference between George and Roland is use of the tea towel. George resists the assignment to use it in domestic duties by purposefully breaking glasses while Roland used it as a loin cloth to hide his masculinity.


Mike Staten (Caeliban) | 422 comments Did anyone else notice the repetition of the number 3? AJ called it out with a potential comparison to Hecate.

* We have the three sisters.
* George once shot three men - two of them were strictly necessary, the third was a precaution
* There are three, hermetically sealed, nunlike birds under glass bells - a duck, a loon, a grouse.

Is the "conquest" of/by Pamela unnecessary like the killing of the third man?

Pamela is identified with the loon on page 50 when she "scowls at the stuffed loon in its glass bell." How is she like a loon? Are Prue and Portia to be identified with the duck and grouse? Which is which? I don't know much about birds.

There are a lot of comparisons to animals.
* The grandfather has a "craggy, walrus-whiskered face" (44)
* Pamela addresses George "as if he were a puppy" (49)
* Roland compares George to a lizard and a prize fish (51)
* The mother makes "cooing sounds" (46) - this strengthens the association between the girls and the birds in the glass bells for me.
* And Portia believes each of the sisters resembles a different bread of dog: she a beagle, Prue a terrier, and Pamela an Afghan (55). Why these particular breeds? I don't know.
* I don't remember Roland being compared to anything but a stump or a failed indian but I could be mistaken.

George came to the lodge to "see wild animals" (46). I'm just not sure what to make of all the comparisons. If any of you are more animal-savvy than I can connect the dots easily I would appreciate the help. It's too early to tell for sure but I might be too lazy to do the research on my own.


Barbara | 4837 comments I accidentally deleted my opening note! So, at the risk of confusing anyone who is just now reading the discussion, I am adding it here. Sorry!!

Our next short story is "Wilderness Tips" by Margaret Atwood. You can find it in our anthology The Art of the Story: An International Anthology of Contemporary Short Stories on page 42. It is also included in her short story collection of the same name.

The following biographical information is from her website http://www.margaretatwood.ca/index.php
I would encourage you to explore it. It's a gracious, welcoming site.

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master's degree from Radcliffe College.

Throughout her writing career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and honourary degrees. She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1970), The Handmaid's Tale (1983), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Atwood's dystopic novel, Oryx and Crake, was published in 2003. The Tent (mini-fictions) and Moral Disorder (short stories) both appeared in 2006. Her most recent volume of poetry, The Door, was published in 2007. Her non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth ­ in the Massey series, appeared in 2008, and her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, in the autumn of 2009. Ms. Atwood's work has been published in more than forty languages, including Farsi, Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Korean, Icelandic and Estonian. In 2004 she co-invented the Long Pen TM.

Margaret Atwood currently lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.


Barbara | 4837 comments This is one of those times that I blithely read this as just a very good story. But, you all have me looking for deeper meaning now which is interesting. A.J., what do you think of Margaret Atwood's writing in general? I sense a bit of irritation in your note and, since you are a Canadian writer as well, I thought you might know more about her than I do.

My sense was that the grandfather was very similar to George. And, in that case, it might be about what happens when we're not hungry any more.

Mike, since they are in a relative wilderness, the animal comparisons seemed to fit. The one about our faces looking progressively more like those of dogs was particularly good bit of visual insight. I think I agree with her.

I'm curious about Pamela's desire to get rid of those stuffed birds though. This cabin has been left exactly like the grandfather left it. None of them seem to have a need to assert a speck of individuality in it. But, maybe Pamela does. And, I thought that she arranged the interlude with George for her own satisfaction. Or, maybe she also wanted to get a little bit of that strength for herself.


A.J. Oh, I have a lot of respect for Margaret Atwood. She is blindingly smart and has written some very good books. The Handmaid's Tale, in particular.

Some of her early work is not very good, though, and Survival in particular is best forgotten.


Barbara | 4837 comments And, did you think that this story was one of the good ones?


A.J. Actually, yes. Getting past all its links to other Atwoodian things, it's a good one.

I particularly liked the way she made picking up a newspaper before it blows into the lake explain Portia's ongoing silence: "No sense in having the clear waves dirtied with stale news," etc.


Mike Staten (Caeliban) | 422 comments Barbara wrote: "I'm curious about Pamela's desire to get rid of those stuffed birds though. This cabin has been left exactly like the grandfather left it..."

One dynamic in the story is the contrast between Portia and Pamela. Some of the details are escaping me but Portia's passivity to me aligns her with the status quo. One sentence I marked described her as "a woman of courtesy and tact and few words, whoe would be kind to him, who would cover up for him; who would pick up the things he had dropped" (47). Pamela, who like George continually remarks on words and language, seems to be her opposite. Her desire to inspect the birds as well as her irreverence for the lodge (demonstrated by her hook up with George) make her an agent for change. The ending note, also the climax in this story as far as I'm concerned, is that change won out. Pamela and George have disrupted things, perhaps irrevocably.


message 15: by Barbara (last edited Aug 13, 2010 05:02AM) (new)

Barbara | 4837 comments I hope that's what it means, Mike. That's certainly the way I interpreted it. But, it could also mean that George is continuing in his systematic exploitation of the family. Do you think that's possible?

A.J., I forgot about that bit with the newspaper. Thanks for reminding me.


A.J. George has always treated the lodge as inviolable. Pamela has put paid to that. And this was not George's idea.


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Books mentioned in this topic

Alias Grace (other topics)
Oryx and Crake (other topics)
Wacousta, Or, the Prophecy: a Tale of the Canadas (other topics)
The Edible Woman (other topics)
Lady Oracle (other topics)
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