Google BSE and you’ll discover Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease. Alexis Kienlen is a Delton resident, author of Mad Cow, and local journalist with a niche in agriculture. When she learned about the tragedy of BSE in beef-loving Alberta, she felt compelled to write about it.

When she launched Mad Cow this spring, the timing was, needless to say, unique.

“It’s very different launching a book during a pandemic.” 

Alexis Kienlen has always worked in the agricultural sector, giving her insight into writing her novel. | Rusti L Lehay

After receiving her author copies on March 12, Kienlen says, “The books were to be available April 15.” When the lockdown started, some stores started selling the books. “The book wasn’t even officially out, and people were already sending me social media posts and mentioning the book on Twitter and Instagram. Kienlen’s book made the Edmonton bestseller list for a week. “The online traffic and social media posts were really nice to see and experience.”

Reader engagement is a good thing. Grant Webster, a local handyman, says, “I don’t know much about BSE. I remember when it happened and that China stopped accepting our beef.” Alberta’s first case appeared in 2003.

Kienlen says, “The US market was the most important, and they stopped accepting beef in May 2003.”

BSE is a neurodegenerative disease in cattle. Mad Cow focuses on one family in particular, and accompanying characters, who struggle with this tragedy as it devastates several Alberta farmers and ranchers. Throw in some rural vernacular like Allyson’s dad saying, “You couldn’t fart in this town without half of the town hearing about it,” and urbanites like Webster learn a lot more than just about mad cow disease.

Readers have commented on the poetic cadence in Mad Cow and its metaphorical prose. “I don’t consciously use poetic elements. When I became a writer, I tried everything at once: journalism, fiction, poetry….”

Every journalism job Kienlen has held has been tied to agriculture, largely due to her international relations education and food security certificate. After completing international internships, she worked in Wainwright, then at The Daily Grande Prairie Herald Tribune, and then at Alberta Farmer. Working in and having lived twice in small towns helped Kienlen create authentic characters.

Mad Cow was on Edmonton’s bestseller list for a week. | Rusti L Lehay

“The characters in my books don’t talk to me. It’s more like I discover them and feel like I have to tell their story. Like Donna. Some people love small towns.” 

Donna and her daughter are the main storytellers. Donna struggles to be the farm wife Gord needs. Through her struggle and the very poignant scene of having to shoot some cattle, Donna remembers learning how to handle a firearm. She then makes a key decision. 

Kienlen seamlessly weaves in the story of realistic families under stress, pop culture, world events (such as the twin towers falling), a gay RCMP officer, vegetarianism (yes, in beef country), and small town dynamics. All these elements serve the central tale of how small farmers and ranchers lost so much in the wake of BSE. 

Few urbanites know anything about the devastation of BSE. Kienlen, in her debut novel, offers fiction that entertains and educates proving once again, it is the poets and novelists who are integral in bridging the gap between scientists and the masses. 

Any proud Albertan is bound to cry and laugh and learn some Alberta history of which most people remain blissfully unaware.

Featured Image: Alexis Kienlen with her debut novel, Mad Cow. | Rusti L Lehay