Gallery Index

Paul William Martin

In the early 1970s about 1800 miles west of the place Philippe Ernewein first met Chief Pale Moon lived another native North American, Paul William Martin.  His grandson, literary critic Paul Martin, writes of his life here pairing his story with a series of five family snapshots taken by his father Paul Jerome Martin. 
Deeply reminiscent of the work of famed documentary photographer Walker Evans, these stark black and white images capture in the most realist of terms not only the Canadian landscape and Paul Martin's subject, but also Paul Martin himself, as a little boy, thirty years ago, at the exact moment his memories of his grandfather were made. 
This is the first of two biographies about a grandfather included in One Story High. I have also included the stories of two grandmothers.

Family Snapshots, 35 MM Slow BW Film, Paul Jerome Martin
Paul William Martin was born December 6, 1913 and died September 8th, 2001, not three full days before the deadly terrorist attacks on the United States.  At his funeral on September 13th, I could not help but ponder how the world in which my grandfather died now seemed markedly different from the one in which he was laid to rest.  Yet, as a prairie person, liminal space was nothing new to him. In body, mind and spirit, he was, at least in my eyes, inseparable from what W.O. Mitchell described in Who Has Seen the Wind as "the least common denominator of nature, the skeleton requirements simply, of land and sky -- Saskatchewan prairie."  In some ways, there is nothing simpler; in others, nothing more challenging -- hard land and big sky as far as the eye can see, with nothing to shield you from the fine line between success or failure, bounty or blight.

My father, Paul Jerome Martin, wrote before the funeral that my grandfather "was a prairie person, one of those people Wallace Stegner described in Wolf Willow: 'It is a country to breed mystical people, egocentric people, perhaps poetic people. But not humble ones. At noon the total sun pours on your single head; at sunrise or sunset you throw a shadow a hundred yards long. It was not prairie dwellers who invented the indifferent universe or impotent man. Puny you may feel there, but not unnoticed. This is a land to mark the sparrow's fall.'"

The question of where ancestry ends and individuality begins seems more complicated when one shares another’s full name. Although my parents chose my middle name, William, as a tribute to my maternal grandfather, they discovered later that it was also my Poppa's middle name. That revelation surprised everyone, including my grandmother who to that point believed her husband to have no middle name whatsoever. We were fated, it seems, to share these names.

What does it mean, though, to be twinned in name to someone of another generation? To share genetics and perhaps even character traits, but to have few common experiences? Despite my emotional ties to the prairie, I remain a city boy, having been born and raised in Edmonton, 700 km from the Martin farm. I am the first in several generations of Martin men never to have tended the land, to have harvested a crop, to have scoured the sky for signs of the fickle weather that could either nourish or destroy the work and hopes of the growing season.

What I do share with my grandfather alone is the moment of recognition when I hear or read our name, one that will never be mine alone. It connects us, as well as my father, Jerome, and my son, Aidan Paul Martin.  We are all richer for these multiple echoes, which remind us that, although stretched across geography and generations, we each will forever find solace on the Saskatchewan prairie where nothing obscures the endless horizon and the majestic sky.

Paul Martin teaches Canadian literature at the University of Vermont where he is also the Director of the Canadian Studies Program. He writes about his work and life as a Canadian living in the United States in his blog, As Canadian As Possible and is also the author of a new book of literary criticism, Sanctioned Ignorance; The Politics of Knowledge Production and the Teaching of the Literatures of Canada. His father, Paul Jerome Martin, has been documenting the Canadian prairie, as well as both rural and urban landscapes all over the world for over fifty years.  He has also worked in agricultural, arts and social scientific research since 1976 and in 1995 founded the Spotted Cow Press.