Teaching “Tay John” on the Yellowhead Highway: A memory by Dr. Joseph Pivato
In 1978 at, then new, Athabasca University (AU) we created our first course in Canadian Literature by beginning it with Howard O’Hagan’s Tay John. Though set in western Canada, O’Hagan’s 1939 novel was not well-known in Alberta. This almost forgotten work was rediscovered by readers in 1974 when McClelland and Stewart reprinted it in their New Canadian Library series as number 105. My colleague and co-author of the course was Mary Hamilton, the first English professor at AU.
Teaching Tay John in 1978-1979 was a pioneering adventure. As one of the first novels in the course along with Richardson’s Wacousta and Hemon’s Maria Chapdelaine, it set the tone for the entire twenty-four weeks of readings and discussions. In those early years of teaching our first course in Canadian Literature, we were not aware of the influence that O’Hagan’s mythic novel was having on other Canadian authors who were beginning to publish novels. Only later did Robert Kroetsch, Michael Ondaatje, and Rudy Wiebe reveal their debt to Tay John. Our growing awareness of this broad influence would change our reading of O’Hagan’s novel and of other novels such as Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook (1959) and Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing (1972). Sheila Watson was later to write part of a new literature course for us.
For the first fourteen years of its existence, Athabasca University was housed in several commercial buildings in northwest Edmonton within sight of the Yellowhead Highway that crosses the northern-half of the city from east to west. So we were literally teaching Tay John from the highway that bears his name in an English translation of Tête Jaune as Yellowhead. Tête Jaune was also Anglicize as Tay John. This highway runs west from Edmonton to Jasper National Park and through the Yellowhead Pass to Mount Robson and to Tête Jaune Cache. This valley of the Athabasca River is the setting for the story and legend of Tay John. It is a powerful story and a mystery.
So it was ironic that in 1984-1985 the university relocated to a campus near the Athabasca River. Maybe the mythic power of the novel, Tay John, as well as the spirit of Tête Jaune himself brought us there. We are, after all, on land occupied by Indigenous people for many thousands of years. Their ghosts are everywhere.
This is by way of a warning to my colleagues in the language and literature program at Athabasca. Be very careful when choosing stories for your courses. Those stories might just come true!
If you want to read more about this story see the book, Sheila Watson: Essays on Her Works, which I edited in 2015. You can find it in the AU library along with O’Hagan’s Tay John.