Alexis Kienlen’s new novel Mad Cow, takes us back to the early 2000s, in an unnamed Alberta town. The closure of the border, due to fears over Mad Cow Disease (BSE), devastates the ranching community as a whole; but the novel focuses on how the BSE crisis specifically acts as the catalyst in breaking apart the Klassen family, a multi-generational ranching operation. The novel is told from the perspective of a mother and daughter who don’t feel 100 per cent at home on the farm, and it explores the frenetic nature of farm life, the fragility of mental health and how rural Canada is seen by our restless youth.
As an agricultural writer who reports for Alberta Farmer Express, Kienlen brings a learned and sensitive perspective to her characters.
Kienlen will be reading from her new novel, May 28 at 6 p.m., as part of the Pandemic Response Reading Series. Head to laurencarter.ca for more information on how to access the reading via Zoom.
Avenue Edmonton in Conversation with Alexis Kienlen
Avenue: Your book is set during the BSE Crisis, and it is being released during another crisis that threatens Alberta farmers, COVID-19. What parallels can you draw between what BSE did to Alberta farmers and what COVID-19 could potentially do to our rural communities?
Kienlen: As someone who wrote a book about a livestock crisis and is now covering a livestock crisis, there are parallels but there are differences, as well. One of the differences is that we still have a market. North American demand is strong. Overseas demand is strong. The markets are still there. The animals are there. The part of the problem in [COVID-19] is the packing plant ability. With BSE, the markets closed, they didn’t have an overseas market, and had to rely a lot more on the Canadian markets.
That said, the cattle producers are using some programs that were developed during BSE to deal with the fact that they now have cattle backed up and can’t get them to market. I just did a really heartbreaking story about beef producers who have come through BSE and are now seeing the same shock to their family farms. But, some of the ranchers who have went through it, they’re now in their 50s and are trying to bring their kids into the family farm, so they’re worried whether those kids can fit in and if there’s a future for them.
The cattle ranchers are also worried about losing some of the younger cattle ranchers because they have more debt, they don’t have as much equity, they haven’t built themselves up. With BSE, the number lost was 27,000 producers in Canada. So, we have a lot fewer cattle producers now — and there’s a real fear we could lose those folks, too. I know that, in my book, people get pretty emotional. I hope that, in Alberta, they don’t get as emotional as they get in the book.
Avenue: Being in Edmonton, we talk a lot about the need to expand our city, to promote urbanization and density. At the same time, rural communities are shrinking. They are losing services, from retail to doctors. Young people raised in rural communities, more and more, want to leave. Your book also deals with that push and pull; the lure of the city versus the responsibility to the family to stay on the farm. Where is the balance between urbanization and preserving our rural communities?
Kienlen: The thing that is interesting about the young people leaving and going to the urban areas is that it’s not just a North American problem. This is a global problem. Who is going to work on the farm? Who is going to be in the small town? It’s a huge issue, when people can lose their doctors and lose their services and could lose their schools. It was just a couple of months ago that someone said to me ‘you’re an ag reporter, I want to talk to you about my school.’ We have such a limited number of pages and it’s not something I could really cover, but there are definitely rural issues out there. This whole pandemic has just brought up the issue that the internet, in a lot of places in rural Alberta, is really sucking. There’s a real need for those communities to have those services,
Avenue: Your book focuses on the fictional Klassen family, and is told through the perspective of two women who live on the farm. How did the story grow? Did the characters ‘speak’ to you?
Kienlen: So there were a few things, I knew I wanted to focus on the women. That was a conscious decision. Gord was going to be the main “dad” (two brothers, each with families of their own, live on the property) on the ranch and I didn’t want to be in his head. I knew I wanted to have the voice of a younger person and a voice of a more middle-aged person … And then I’ve always been interested in the idea of people who don’t want to be in a certain situation. Both Donna (Gord’s wife) and Allyson (Gord’s daughter) are characters who do not really belong on a farm. Donna was in love with the romanticization of [farm life] and she loved her husband, but a farm is not her ideal location. And Allyson is a bookish person who would rather live in a city, which I sort of based on myself.
A lot of the characters, like most fiction writers, there’s a certain person you’re thinking of, or some characteristics, and it becomes a composite. I can tell you that I based Mary Anne, who is a colourful character, off Christine Baranski’s character in Sybill (a TV show from the 1990s). That’s who I pictured in the role, Christine Baranski. Mabel Jacobson is a character who shows up all the time: I lived in one small town, Wainwright, it’s the only small town I’ve lived in, but there’s always one person who volunteers for everything and is everywhere you go and knows everything about the town. I worked at the Wainwright newspaper for about a year. There’s certain town people I drew inspiration from.
Avenue: At no point in the book did you actually name the town. Was that intentional?
Kienlen: Yes. I did that because I didn’t want to base it on an actual, real town. I just wanted to let people think about where this town was, where it might be. But I also thought it would be fun to do that because people, when they live near a town, they just say ‘I’m going into town.’ I did it on purpose and I enjoyed not identifying the town. That way I don’t have anyone coming back to me and being mad that I am portraying their hometown in a certain way.
Avenue: With COVID-19, do you think more people are growing conscious about farming? About where their food comes from?
Kienlen: I would hope so. I think there’s a lot of interest. I did a story about milk getting dumped, and my mom is a big milk drinker, so she’s like ‘why is this happening?’ When I put stories in my Facebook or Twitter feeds, people are interested in reading them. Aside from the book and the fact I work as an ag journalist, I actually did take a certificate in food security. At one point, I was like, my first degree is in international studies, my second degree is in journalism, I’m now learning agriculture. They’re going to need people who understand food systems, who can write about food, so maybe I should take this food-security certificate. So, at one point during the pandemic, I was just thinking that I’m very lucky to have made some good life choices!