LITERATURE: 40 Below an Edmonton winter experience

40 Below GigCity EdmontonEdmonton has to be the only city in the English-speaking world where residents complain about the weather ALL YEAR LONG.

In most social circles in other places, weather talk is small talk. Here, it’s a passion up there with politics. Oh, sure, it’s nice here in the fall, according to Ian Tyson, but the only thing that keeps fall from being the best season ever is that it’s followed by winter. Our depressing, dark, cold, ugly, wretched winter that tortures us for seven months and keeps coming back for encores before it’s finally over. Citizens are so traumatized we even forget how horrible it is. It snows for the first time and people forget how to drive, then it melts and then it freezes and then it destroys our roads no matter how many tax dollars we pour into the potholes, and then it remains an ossified cold hard gray slippery concrete-like surface of an alien planet orbiting a cold sun for the next four terrible, terrible months. Edmonton is pitied by just about every other North American outside of Winnipeg. Visiting entertainers do it all the time. “Man is it cold out there. You’re God’s frozen people,” said Brad Paisley recently – and it isn’t even winter yet.

So with all this, why on Earth would anyone in Edmonton want to read a book about winter in Edmonton?!

Apparently, they do.

The new Edmonton Winter Anthology 40 Below is already on at least one local best seller list. The collection of prose and poetry from local writers will have its official launches Sunday, Nov. 17 from 2-4 pm at Block 1912 and Tuesday, Nov 19 at 7 pm at Audrey’s Books. (Forecast calls for flurries and high of minus 18 with the windchill.)

Editor Jason Lee Norman explains that the appeal of such an unlikely collection stems precisely from the shared experience. We’ve all been there, stuck in the snow in 40 below, that is. The Edmonton winter has made Edmontonians unique among North Americans, he says. We are hardened, hardy and know how to survive in the arctic wasteland like few other city dwellers in less unpleasant climates.

“I think the book gives you a new appreciation for winter, a new perspective on winter and what people are going through,” Norman says. “A lot of stories are about how much fun we have outdoors in conditions a lot of people in the world would find extreme. It’s something to be proud of.”

There is evidence to back up the theory of Edmonton’s winterized identity. Local filmmaker Rosie Dransfeld made a documentary about prostitutes called Who Cares? that she purposely shot during the summer to obfuscate the location, “because we didn’t want to make this into an Edmonton story,” she said. Boomer music fans may also remember the late, great Gaye Delorme’s famous “Rodeo Song,” which starts with the line, “It’s 40 below and I don’t give a fuck, got a heater in my truck …” and a better sentiment for the archetypical hardy winter Edmontonian has never been written.

Alice Major

Alice Major

40 Below may be the first of its kind. It contains more than 70 works, from poems by Alice Major to short stories by Michael Hingston, that are not so much ABOUT the winter as they are about the experience of living here in the winter, the editor says. Important difference. Human stories are the key. No one wants to read a tale about getting your car stuck in a snow bank unless it involves the Donner Party. Norman says several of the contributors just happened to have Edmonton winterish material kicking around that hadn’t been published – for some reason – and they were more than happy to be part of the project. Now that the book is out and in stores around town, the editor says he still gets some funny looks.

“I can see it in people’s faces when they stop to look at the cover,’ Norman says. “A lot say, ‘40 below? Winter? Edmonton?’ and go, ‘oh, I’m from Calgary’ or say, Winter! I’m trying not to think about it.” People reading about winter during the winter might sound odd, literally chilling, but he adds, “Maybe it’s the same reason why they sell more Slurpees in Winnipeg in the winter than the summer.”

While it is true that people like to read about cataclysmic events heroically overcome, even their own, Edmonton winter isn’t a one-time disaster. It’s an annual calamity. Norman – who actually came up with the idea for the book while driving one sunshiny spring day – likens the locals’ approach towards winter to the stages of grief.

He says, “There’s denial, no, this isn’t happening again! There’s bargaining, there’s anger and fear, and obviously it ends in acceptance. It keeps coming every year. The thing I like in Edmonton is that we actually have four seasons. Having different seasons is good, and I think human beings probably need that. I think winter for the human body is a time where we reset ourselves. It’s nice that we have that. We have cycles in nature and we go through it physically as well. We can actually feel the winter, and I think we’re probably in touch more with what’s happening around us.”

Classic denial.