Ethics and Identification
- Barbara Sapergia (Author)
Dry. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Rob Harasymchuk (Author)
The Joining of Dingo Radish. Great Plains Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer (Author)
The Nettle Spinner. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jodi Lundgren
Ecological concerns crop up in three diverse works of fiction: Dry, a speculative novel; The Joining of Dingo Radish, a thriller; and The Nettle-Spinner, a re-spun fable. In each novel, tenderness, ruthlessness, and guilt abound among people and towards the land. Successful navigation of this fraught terrain hinges largely on the reader’s relationship with the point-of-view characters.
Set in 2023, a time of global drought, Dry centers on a sister and brother team of Saskatchewan agricultural scientists, Signy and Tomas Nilsson, who are developing a strain of wheat that thrives in arid conditions. Next door to the Nilssons lives their arch enemy, Magnus Dragland, a 125-year-old bionic billionaire who covets their land and their research results. In spare, controlled prose, Sapergia uses recognizable conventions of characterization and dialogue to guide the reader’s response to the villain. After a failed attempt to murder Signy’s twelve-year-old son, Dragland addresses his faithful assistant as follows:
I may be old, Kuiva, but I’m old in cunning, too. Do you hear? They’ll find out how dangerous it is to be in my way. I’m not ready to go for a good long time, not till I see them gone. But first I’ll know their secrets. How did the boy stop the tractor? Why is their wheat growing?
An antagonist as unequivocal as Dragland would seem to call for an equally clear hero, but Sapergia creates an ethically muddy protagonist who does not provide this balance.
The opening of the novel aligns the reader with Signy as she surveys the parched land of Southern Saskatchewan in a “skyboat” (or flying car). Despite the access to Signy’s consciousness, it is difficult to identify with her, for she soon reminisces about a murder she committed four years prior. Although she has acted in self-defense, she buries the body in secret and prides herself on “[getting] away with it.” If such vigilante justice were symptomatic of the moral and legal deterioration of this future society, perhaps it would not interfere as much as it does with Signy’s credibility. But without details to suggest an anarchic state (the RCMP respond promptly to a crisis later in the book), this behaviour, given such prominence early in the narrative, alienates sympathy.
With an unreliable narrator, the reader’s inability to trust becomes part of the pleasure of reading. The kind of mistrust that Signy inspires, however, provokes detachment: we watch her rather than experiencing the story through her, anticipating further lapses of integrity. Ostensibly concerned about world hunger, the Nilssons attempt to market their drought-resistant wheat globally. In the process, their priorities threaten to shift towards power and profit. The distinction between the Nilssons and their enemy, Dragland, eventually collapses in an ominous, yet ambiguous, conclusion to the book.
Whereas in Dry, only the villain poisons the land with pesticides and herbicides, in The Joining of Dingo Radish (also set in Saskatchewan), the anti-hero, Dingo, unapologetically steals and fences such products, including the high-end “Guardian.” No confusion exists about the ethics of this straight-talking narrator, whose parents have committed suicide to escape foreclosure, leaving him, at eighteen, responsible for his younger siblings: “I couldn’t let myself be bound by any sort of foolish concepts of virtue or morality, otherwise I’d end up like so many others. A pathetic failure. I had to be willing to fuck over anyone who stood between me and what I wanted and not suffer a moment’s regret because of it.” Fiercely protective of his developmentally-delayed brother and remarkably tolerant of his violent, promiscuous sister, Dingo aims to fund the family’s escape from their inhospitable home town with a final, massive heist of Guardian from its producer, Steigman Biotechnologies.
Dingo explains how the substance works:
The best way I can describe it is to say that Guardian could sort of . . . well . . . think.
I know it sounds like science fiction. Guardian somehow altered its chemical structure. First it identified which plants outnumbered the others. If in a square foot you had ten wheat seedlings, two shoots of kochia and a thistle, Guardian then reformulated itself to be compatible with the wheat—and destroyed everything else.
The implications of such destruction do not trouble Dingo, and he remains initially unswayed by his encounter with a beautiful activist, Emily, whose organization polices the “biogenetics trade” and targets Steigman. But when Dingo robs the Steigman plant on the same night that Emily bombs it, their destinies intertwine, and soon murder, kidnapping, and car-chases propel the fast-paced narrative. As in Dry, we accompany the protagonist in committing murder, but because it happens long after the reader has both cemented an identification with Dingo and recognized the book as a thriller, it produces none of the distancing effect that Signy’s actions do. Neo-fascism, eugenics, and the threat of genocide escalate the stakes of the novel (if to rather top-heavy heights) and force Dingo to enlarge his family-centered worldview. The novel’s greatest strengths lie in its suspenseful, action-based scenes and its intelligent, unpretentious narrator.
By far the most complex in structure of the three novels, The Nettle Spinner interpolates an Andrew Lang fairy tale of the same title. Inset in brief, third-person snippets, the fable concerns a lecherous count, Burchard the Wolf; a twelve-year-old peasant girl, Renelde; and a woodcutter engaged to the girl. Although Renelde cannot escape the count’s sexual attacks, she discovers that by weaving with nettle thread, she holds the power of life and death over him.
In the contemporary, first-person narrative, a treeplanter named Alma hears Lang’s fable, gathers nettle, and begins “weaving the story cloth, reciting and recreating the old story in fragments.” Alma confesses that she has woven a Renelde who resembles her, adding that “history repeats itself.” She thus alerts the reader of parallels between the inset tale and the treeplanters’ story, though the overlay is neither tidy nor complete (and all the more intriguing as a result).
Much emotional drama takes place in a third narrative tier—an eerie, enigmatic frame story set in an abandoned mining camp, where Alma lives with an infant and a small man who may be a leprechaun. In contrast, the treeplanting scenes ground the novel in critical realism:
It was easy to look around at the heaps of ripped-up brush, at the forest floor trying to regenerate, at the lumber left behind and take the high ground. But that was crap and I knew it. I wasn’t there for the ecosystem; this wasn’t a system anymore. I was there for the money and the escape and they were what kept me. Sustainability, renewable resource, ecology were just words.
Although Alma stops short of “crewcutting the roots,” a practice that makes planting easier but decreases the trees’ chances of survival, she admits her own complicity with the treeplanting industry. Like Harasymchuk’s Dingo, Alma acknowledges but does not rationalize her own failings, and thus invites identification.
Haunting and sensual, Kuitenbrouwer’s novel merits re-reading for its well-phrased wisdom as well as for a fuller appreciation of its structural intricacy. Like a compelling action film, Harasymchuk’s novel calls to be absorbed in as close to one sitting as possible. Finally, despite the distance that Sapergia creates between her protagonist and the reader, Dry’s dystopia of global drought and planetary ownership prompts serious reflection.
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MLA: Lundgren, Jodi. Ethics and Identification. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 Dec. 2014.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 173 - 175)
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