Dawn Morgan’s creative nonfiction memoir Unsettled ripples outward from a 1979 incident that left a rancher and a buffalo bull dead. That violent moment begat grief, gallows humour, and revelation on levels intimate – the death of the author’s father, the muddled obliviousness of her family – to international; Unsettled explores in depth the historical, colonial, and linguistic abuses which contributed to putting that particular buffalo in that particular corral. Throughout, Morgan grapples to construct a protagonist-self who can move forward amid contradictions of hard evidence and cultural mythologies.
In a time when fear has fortified borders – national, provincial, local, personal – Unsettled reminds us that not so long ago, we regarded those same lines far more lightly. In a world that valorizes plain lies couched in reductive tweets, Morgan’s nuanced language investigates not just its own subjects but also the way sentences make sense. Or don’t.
For example, Morgan’s prose alludes without excluding. The fifth chapter’s “death drive” from Nashville to Albuquerque interleaves moments of wrestling with her “awareness of the serious danger I was in, of what could only be called involuntary suicide” between mentions of musicians Kris Kristopherson, Crystal Gayle, Dolly Parton, Ray Price, Dwight Yoakum, Gram Parsons, the Pointer Sisters, Joni Mitchell, k.d. lang, U2, and Emmylou Harris; the movie Thelma and Louise; authors José Marti, Ernesto Cardenal, Margaret Randall, and Jack Kerouac; sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein; and William Walker, the American lawyer and politician who usurped the presidency of Nicaragua in the mid-nineteenth century. Her experience on this road leads the author to grasp that her father was probably
”… just feeling blue, like me singing the country and western blues and then the tremor went through him, his hand twitching but it was on the trigger, not a guitar string or steering wheel or his AA pen writing a letter home, and then he was gone by that shaky hand, the end of a story that could have carried on, and gone elsewhere, and been otherwise.”
Unsettled: A Reckoning on the Great Plains delivers precisely what the poster for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show promised: “Thrills. And Laughs” (like the second chapter’s laundromat from hell.) Morgan combines the strengths of David Adam Richards and Lorri Neilsen Glenn, author of Following the River: Traces of Red River Women. I couldn’t get off the road she lays out in Unsettled; hard-won epiphanies kept me navigating each textual hairpin turn.
Born and raised in Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, Dawn Morgan is an Associate Professor of English at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
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