October 29, 2013
Review By Mark Diotte
George Bowering’s Shoot!, originally published in 1994, is based on the historical account of the murder of officer Johnny Ussher by the McLean Gang. Ostensibly, Shoot! is a western novel that revolves around the youthful adventures of the McLean Gang in the Cariboo-Chilcotin area of British Columbia during the late nineteenth century. Yet, Shoot! quickly moves beyond a simple adventure novel and becomes an anti-western by denying the romance of “the west” and, instead, ranging across myriad politically charged issues, including Aboriginal land rights, violence and racism on Canada’s western frontier, youth violence, power of the Hudson’s Bay Company, mixed-race relationships, and the death penalty.
While many components of the traditional western novel are present in Shoot! – cowboys, gunfights, a posse, horse-stealing, hanging – these conventions work towards a subversion of the traditional western storyline(s) of adventure, the establishment of order, and the dividends of hard work. The heroes of the novel are four mixed-race “cowboy” characters who comprise the McLean Gang – Allan, Charlie, and Archie McLean, along with Alex Hare – and who are ultimately executed in a group hanging for the tragic murder of Ussher. The adventure of “the gunfight” and the social justice of “the posse” are replaced by four young men trapped without water in a small, feces- and urine-strewn cabin surrounded by over one hundred gunmen. Insofar as social order is concerned, British Columbia is described in terms of systemic political and social racism. Labelled “half-breeds,” the McLeans are denied land and are excluded from both the white settler community and the surrounding Aboriginal communities. Framed by the historical events that led up to this murder and the subsequent hanging of the Mclean Gang at New Westminster in 1881, Shoot! details the historical circumstances and pressures in western Canada that created murderers out of young men. Yet, while the social realities of the McLeans are horrific, Bowering does not suggest that these realities justify Ussher’s murder; rather, he uses this tragedy to portray the larger population and socio-political framework as complicit in both the Ussher murder and the deaths of the McLean Gang.
While at times there is too much “Bowering,” or narrator commentary, in the novel, the book’s many strengths make it a must for any student of literature and history in Canada. Bowering was Canada’s first Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2002-04) and winner of the Governor General’s Award for poetry (1969) and fiction (1980).
BC Studies, no. 163, Autumn 2009.