When six-foot Curva Peligrosa rides her horse into Weed, Alberta, after a twenty-year trek up the Old North Trail from southern Mexico, she stops its residents in their tracks. A parrot perched on each shoulder, wearing a serape and flat-brimmed black hat, and smiling and flashing her glittering gold tooth, she is unlike anything they have ever seen before. Curva is ready to settle down, but are the inhabitants of Weed ready for her? With an insatiable appetite for life and love, Curva’s infectious energy galvanizes the townspeople. With the greenest of thumbs, she creates a tropical habitat in an arctic clime, and she possesses a wicked trigger finger, her rifle and six-guns never far away.
Then a tornado tears though Weed, leaving all the inhabitants’ lives in disarray and revealing dark remains that cause the Weedites to question their very foundations. And that’s how the novel starts, with the twister hurtling Curva’s purple outhouse into the center of town, Curva inside, “peering through a slit in the door at the village dismantling around her.”
From then on, we follow Curva and the Weedites as they recover from the chaos that follows. As the above synopsis shows, a good portion of Curva Peligrosa’s narrative takes place in the fictional small town of Weed, Alberta, about twenty-five miles from what is now a major city, Calgary. When I, Lily MacKenzie, left the city in 1963, the population was two hundred fifty thousand. Today, Calgary, and its environs, has well over a million people.
While Curva Peligrosa doesn’t have autobiographical roots (I’m not Mexican American or six feet tall. Nor do I have a gold tooth!), it does have some parallels to historical moments in the province. When I was growing up in that area, agriculture was the main source of income. But in 1947, significant oil reserves were discovered at Leduc, Alberta, ushering in the oil boom that continues today. The excitement over extracting black gold from the earth brought job seekers and others to the area, eager to exploit the province’s riches.
I must have registered these developments subliminally, even though it wasn’t something I was particularly conscious of at the time. And as a young woman, I did secretarial work for Sinclair Canada Oil and other American petroleum companies. Impressionable, I thought the Texas accents signified power and prosperity and wanted to emulate them, faking a drawl whenever I could. It took me a while to realize that, in fact, many Americans were taking over our land and much of its oil.
My association with these (mainly) southerners fueled my interest in moving to America in my early twenties. Eventually I became an American citizen so that, as a single parent, I could take advantage of California’s university system and earn degrees (a B.A. and two Masters degrees) from San Francisco State. So while my early contact with these oilmen may not have been personally promising at the time, the experience propelled me into seeking higher education that wasn’t then available to me in Canada. However, the earlier image of American oilmen making off with our prairie identity had been planted. It stayed with me, surfacing in Curva Peligrosa and in Curva’s concerns over what she was witnessing in Weed, a town she had recently made her home. But none of this was intentional when I began the narrative. I had no idea then where it would take me.
In the novel, Shirley, an americano who is buying up nearby land so he can own all of the oil rights, represents the kind of southerner from my earlier experience. In Curva Peligrosa, he ends up being a villain in the old sense of the word where many readers will end up booing him. In turn, Shirley seems to embrace that identity and to enjoy the turmoil he is creating, not only in Curva, but also in the Weedites themselves. I had created a kind of Trumpian character long before Trump had brought chaos to America.
Like Curva, I’m not averse to some kinds of development, but I do recognize that the word can be misleading. In certain cases, it might represent growth and advancement for the people involved. For example, the Blackfoot tribe in Curva Peligrosa benefit from the oil wealth. It allows them to build a museum that highlights Native life and also to open their own university. Under the leadership of their chief Billie One Eye, the wealth gives them an identity they otherwise had lacked, even though they sold out to the americano in order to enrich their tribe.
But in many other instances, such development can deplete the land of valuable resources and drastically disturb the environment, improving a few lives but enslaving many, not unlike what we are witnessing today in America. The continued practice of mining and burning coal doesn’t make sense given its harmful effects on the environment. This imbalance becomes one of Curva’s concerns. She also hates how life’s pace has speeded up, not leaving time for the basics, such as enjoying leisurely meals with friends and loved ones, fiestas, and sex.I hadn’t set out to write a novel that harbored a political slant, but once I became involved in Curva’s quest, I didn’t have any choice but to follow along and express her concerns. In the process, I learned how seeds planted in our unconscious early on do sprout and bloom in our writing.
Lily Iona MacKenzie is the author of two novels, Fling and Curva Peligrosa, and a poetry collection All This. Her upcoming novel, Freefall: A Divine Comedy will be released in 2018. Lily’s poetry was also featured in the Pact Press anthology, Speak and Speak Again. When she’s not writing, she paints and travels widely with her husband. Lily also blogs.