Self-described as “small compared with the magnitude of its themes,” Trevor Herriot’s book Towards a Prairie Atonement fuses the conventions of historical and ecological writing to craft a book that insightfully explores both the land and people of the Canadian Prairies. In this process, Herriot turns what may look like a small step — as this book is shorter than my hand — into learning about the prairie provinces and spins it into a massive leap in knowledge and appreciation for that area that affected me and, I’m sure, anyone else who ventures into the world of this book.
Flipping between the history of the Prairies and Herriot’s own journey to collect this information, Towards a Prairie Atonement pays particular attention to the wildlife photographers, social activists, land owners, Métis leaders, and many others who contributed to the true mosaic of this book. Herriot also emphasizes not only his role in creating this book but also our own role as readers. Contrary to the typical order of a book, instead of starting at chapter one it instead opens up with Herriot’s “Acknowledgments.”
In these acknowledgments, Herriot’s first sentence is basically that the book itself — how it feels in your hand, the author’s delicate gold illustration of the Prairie grasses that appear on the book’s cover, and its size — should contribute to how enjoyable it is to read this book. This book’s intentional beauty invites us to revisit the grasslands, which can seem plain and impersonal, through new eyes. Each of these thoughtful details definitely contributed to my interest in this book, and I really appreciate the effort that the author and his publisher put into making this little white book something special both inside and out.
A book I’ve jokingly described as an “autobiography of Saskatchewan”, Towards a Prairie Atonement truly succeeds in transforming the province into something I can understand and engage with, rather than leaving it simply as a point between A and B on a road trip. It also made me reflect on how little we focus on the Prairies themselves. On TV, in books, or in our day-to-day conversations, Prairie stories just aren’t told often. Unlike the popularity of American Westerns, the story of settler occupation of the prairies, the language and culture of the Métis people, or the feuds between the Hudson Bay Company and the North West Company don’t typically leave the middle school classroom in Canada (with the comic book series A Girl Called Echo by Katherena Vermette being a fantastic exception).
A joy to read and a joy to write about, Towards a Prairie Atonement is a delightful guide for history buffs or those wide-eyed to learn more. Including a few blank pages at the end of the book in which to make your own field notes, Herriot’s book encourages loving and perceptive engagement with the natural world around us, whether we are on the Prairies or the Canadian Shield.