Timescape: History Plays and Isolation
“Machines change, people don't.”48 Nelson tells the children about a boy who was
infatuated with the huge steam engines that powered threshing machines. This boy
dreamed of growing up and running a threshing outfit of his own. The children learn
later that this boy was Nelson himself. Through Nelson’s stories, the children (and thus
the listener) learn about the daily routine of the threshing crew, and about the men who
worked the threshers. When Mr. Nelson leaves, Mr. Peterson tells the children that
Nelson was once a thresher-engineer, until he “tangled with a belt” and lost the use of his
hand. Mr. Nelson was the boy who dreamed of running a thresher. Nelson’s dream came
true, but it cost him his hand.
Nelson’s sacrifice fits well into Atwood’s first motif of Canadian literature’s
settler theme, i.e. “straight line battles curve and wins, but destroys human ‘life force’ in
the process” (Survival 122). Nelson dreams of using the triumph of western thought,
technology as represented by the thresher, to tame the prairies. He succeeds in doing so,
thus straightening “the curve,” but loses part of himself in the process. But Atwood’s
settler view cannot encompass the optimistic tone of the rest of the play. The children are
looking back from a position of the victory of the straight-line motif. The loss of
Nelson’s hand is only referred to; it is not dramatized. Moreover, the scenes from
Nelson’s childhood are optimistic. His parents succeed in settling and farming their
section. The farming society has prospered enough to have created a museum celebrating
itself. The victory of the straight-line is celebrated in this radio play of the mid-1950s.
Mr. Nelson is a character who has suffered isolation and loss on several levels.
The children discover him wandering alone through a museum displaying the outdated
48 This comment was especially jarring to a researcher listening to the play in 2004, when this play, about history, is also a kind of historical artifact.