Ghosting the NWT
- Elizabeth Hay (Author)
Late Nights on Air. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sherrill Grace
Hay has written about the NWT before, but in this novel she reaches deeper into the history of the area and creates her most complex characters to date in a wonderfully engaging narrative. As the title suggests, a key setting for this novel is a radio studio, but it is only one gathering place for the people working for CBC Yellowknife in the summer of 1975. Beyond the CBC building lies the city—historic and beautiful—and beyond Yellowknife lies majestic Great Slave Lake. But it is what lies beyond the lake, out on the night airwaves and further still out on the Barrens and the storied Thelon River that seduces both the characters in the novel and its readers.
Hay develops the stories of her five main characters slowly, until we feel we know them intimately: they will succeed or fail at work, fall in love, be betrayed or abandoned, and some of them will die but not until we learn to care. She uses the same gradual circling technique to create her landscape of Yellowknife until its streets, shorelines, and Latham Island feel as familiar to us as home. This is not, and I stress not, a novel to hurry through. Others have asked me what it is about and where it is going, and my answer is: trust it, let it carry you along, pay attention but relax. The trip will be rewarding, with no danger that you will end up like the most powerful ghost to haunt the narrative: John Hornby.
As northern history buffs know, that eccentric Englishman Hornby starved to death on the shores of the Thelon River in the winter of 1926-27. He also caused the deaths of another adult man and one teenager, Edgar Christian, and it was Edgar’s diary, found in the cold ashes of the wood stove, that went on to lead a fascinating posthumous life. Most of the characters in Late Nights on Air know about Hornby, whose biography, by George Whalley, was published in 1962, but one of them is especially attracted to his story because of a radio program she heard as a girl. Gwen (who is, I believe, Hay’s alter ego) will persuade three of her co-workers and friends to make the trip from the east end of Great Slave Lake up onto the Barrens and down the Thelon River “following in Hornby’s footsteps.” Hay is not the only writer to have tackled Hornby—Lawrence Jeffery’s play Who Look in Stove is a stunning recreation of that fatal Thelon adventure—but she has woven his tale of longing, danger, and death into her larger narrative remarkably well. Only one person will die when Hay’s characters paddle the Thelon, but there will be other untimely deaths along the narrative way.
Do not ask me to tell you about them or to describe what Hay does with Farley Mowat, Tom Berger (and his pipeline inquiry), Thierry Mallet, and the others who were marked by the Barrens and make brief appearances. This novel is, among other things, a mystery story, and its mysteries must be relished, waited for. For myself, I feel enriched by this complicated, nuanced telling of a time, a place, and a world—on and off air—that lies out there beckoning us to discover it. And that world, in Hay’s hands, is a world of northern stories that shape us regardless of how far south we stray.
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MLA: Grace, Sherrill and Hay, Elizabeth. Ghosting the NWT. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 139 - 140)
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