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Thursday June 23, 2011

Novelist mentored young writers

Robert Kroetsch, the prolific postmodern writer and teacher, died in a car crash near Canmore, Alta., on Tuesday afternoon at the age of 83. He was returning to his home in Leduc, after serving as a mentor for emerging writers at Artspeak in Canmore, when the car in which he was a passenger was T-boned by a vehicle travelling from the opposite direction.

"The RCMP called me late last night and I couldn't believe it," said a still shocked Rudy Wiebe, a close friend for more than 40 years. The two men had driven together to Calgary only the week before to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Writers Guild of Alberta. Describing Kroetsch as "one of the heroes" of that event, Wiebe said he had given a wonderful speech after receiving a golden pen award for lifetime achievement and had been roundly applauded by the audience of about 250 people. "He was so sharp, so imaginative, brilliant still, despite his physical problems," said Wiebe, explaining that Kroetsch suffered from Parkinson's disease. "He was so happy and everybody there was so happy to see him."

Kroetsch was the author of several novels, including The Words of My Roaring, The Studhorse Man (which won the Governor-General's Award for fiction in 1969), Gone Indian and Badlands, as well as many collections of poetry, including Seed Catalogue, The Hornbooks of Rita K and Too Bad: Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait. Kroestch never actually taught in Alberta, said Weibe, but his books were all set there. One of his great strengths as a writer was to use words to shape the reality of our lives. "His wit and insights were shiny. He was very gentle, wonderfully friendly. I have never met a less judgmental person in my life."

Kroetsch was born on a farm near Heisler, Alta., on June 26, 1927. After earning a bachelor's degree at the University of Alberta, he worked as a labourer in the Arctic before heading to McGill University to spend a year studying under Hugh MacLennan in 1954. He eventually earned a PhD in creative writing at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1961 and taught for nearly two decades at the State University of New York at Binghampton before returning to Canada in the late 1970s to take up a teaching post at the University of Manitoba. The university made him a distinguished professor in 1985.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been released. A full obituary is forthcoming.

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