“In 1954, when his first novel, Last of the Curlews, was published, Fred Bodsworth instantly joined the ranks of Canadian nature writers that already included Sir Charles G. D. Roberts, Ernest Thompson Seton and Farley Mowat and would go on to include such writers of the land as Rudy Wiebe and Robert Kroetsch. But he also became one of the pioneers of a much larger fraternity, one that had barely begun to exist — writers of that curious cross-over genre that exists somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. Last of the Curlews is a novel the main character of which is a bird, a solitary Eskimo curlew, that migrates from the high Canadian Arctic to Patagonia and back again, ‘to seek a mate of its kind on the sodden tundra plains which slope to the Arctic Sea.’
Aloneness and the struggle for survival against overwhelming odds have been the continuing themes of Fred’s writing. His second and fourth novels, The Strange One and The Sparrow’s Fall, both deal with northern Native communities and their efforts to remain unassimilated into southern cultures. And his third novel, The Atonement of Ashley Morden, is a searing indictment of 20th century herd values, as epitomized by the savagery of the Second World War. Though Morden is ‘a pure man in an impure world,’ he nonetheless ‘surrendered his individualism to the organized, regimented mass’ — a surrender for which he seeks atonement, or at-one-ment, in the course of the novel.
Individualism versus the herd mentality, species survival and the threat of habitat destruction, the disintegration of indigenous cultures in the face of so-called civilized encroachment — these are the major themes of the past century, not only in Canada but in the world. Fred Bodsworth has had important things to say about our place in the natural and, increasingly, unnatural scheme of things, and he has said them well: here, for example, is the penultimate paragraph from Last of the Curlews; its haunting sprung rhythms and Bateman-like images continue to reverberate 50 years after they were written:
‘At dawn he hovered high in the grey sky, his lungs swelling with the cadence of his mating song. Now she didn’t respond to the offer of courtship feeding. The tundra call was irresistible. He flew again and called once more. Then he levelled off, the rising sun glinting pinkly on his feathers, and he headed north in silence, alone.’”
— 2002 Matt Cohen Award Committee (Patsy Aldana, Graeme Gibson, and Wayne Grady)