Survival of the Courageous
- Kevin Patterson (Author)
Consumption. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Gail Robinson (Author)
God of the Plains. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jennifer Fraser
God of the Plains by Gail Robinson and Consumption by Kevin Patterson have in common the need to recount the story of incredible strength and endurance that dominates Canada’s past and present. In an era that loves superheroes, these authors narrate tales of heroic achievement from people without any special powers: they suffer deadly climates and harvest what it yields; they demand work from bodies that can barely move or that have been injured; they survive tragedy; they save neighbours; they save themselves. Each novel leads the reader into an exploration of what quality it allows us to triumph and what dangers lie in being “weak-kneed” as one of Robinson’s prairie characters puts it. Or in the final line of Patterson’s book: “Contained within this beauty, and perhaps its necessary consequence, are the people here—who huddle similarly close and watch for one another’s peril.”
Robinson’s God of the Plains revolves around a haunting windmill, which dominates a community in the prairies like a Tower of Babel. From the poem as prologue where “the man / tightened into the shouldering wind / like a salmon into fast water,” to a child jumping from the windmill, rocking “until the tidal wave of lava-blood to damaged nerve-tissue ebbed,” one is aware that the legacy of God of the Plains is not just the telling of Canadian landscape and its history, but it is also the heritage of our language. The family that builds the windmill immigrates from Scotland in a series of Anglo-Saxon epithets: their trip is “soot-covering,” “sick-making,” “weary-filled,” and “bone-numbing.” The characters belong to a time almost lost to us now as evidenced in the description of the fourteen-year-old Nester boy: “Will, who could look any man in the eye and lie as though quoting from the Bible, said, ‘If I’m old enough to drive a car and fight Germans, I reckon I’m old enough to pay for a stick of dynamite.” The book culminates in a scene of magic realism worthy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, where a girl “riding her mill like a frigate on a prairie ocean” and letting “her spirit soar, taking with it the ordinariness of bone, blood, muscle . . . breathed in a whole world, and jumped.” Since, as this child thinks, “maybe, simply, there really are truths beyond what we allow ourselves to know.”
Patterson’s Consumption revolves around a lung infected with tuberculosis, which functions as a metaphor for the Inuit body diseased by the Europeans who settle Canada. The virus that ravages one girl’s lung serves to represent the way in which diseases decimate whole communities and then finally reveals the damaging potential of affluence on our bodies; thus the infected lung ultimately raises larger medical and cultural issues about epidemiology. This novel opens with a dedication taken from a French alms box to which one often returns in contemplation: “For the sick, the poor, and the ashamed.” Throughout the novel, Patterson investigates the complex relation between these three qualities or situations.
Both God of the Plains and Consumption tell the story of three generations. Thus the point of view shifts back and forth from old to young. In God of the Plains, the older generation cannot fathom the war; Fred and George in their sixties discuss it in the hayloft. Fred cannot believe that God would endow his son Brian with such a brilliant brain only to have him die young: “‘A boy like that shouldn’t be anywhere near a war.” And George replies “without taking a moment to think about it”: “No boy, no matter who or what, should be anywhere near a war.” “Fred nodded, eyes suddenly full of tears, said, ‘Amen to that. Well. . . . Have another beer?’ ‘Don’t mind if I do.’” In contrast, the young men of the community see the war as an opportunity to escape the exhausting, thankless work of farming. They cannot resist the chance to see Europe even if it is being bombed. Once close-knit, the community, already diverse with immigrants, acts out its fears and cruelties during World War II within itself.
In Consumption, the time-honoured way of life in the North is represented by the Inuit hunter, Emo who calls a storm strong enough to tear a house off the ice “Ublumi anarahkto” (a little windy). When his daughter, Victoria, is diagnosed with tuberculosis at ten years of age and sent far away to a sanatorium, an irreparable break occurs in the family line. Her body is cured of the disease, but her heart and soul are infected.
Three symbolic figures strive to bridge the gap in the community between the insular Inuit and the faraway multicultural world: a doctor, a priest, and a teacher. The teacher: “ached for something she couldn’t have described with any precision, but it had something to do with a place like this—cold, hard, unyielding—and the sort of heat a place like this requires one to generate.” The Arctic of Consumption lures hunters into its vast realm for survival; it lures miners deep into its diamond filled core for greed; it lures the teacher out as she runs with her dogs across the snow and it consumes her.
The most compelling line in Consumption is “at the essence of the experience of being sick lies fear.” One realizes that Fear has been the antagonist all along in the book. It is the villain that creeps in and ravages the Inuit community; it is the psycho who lashes out at the city dwellers dismantling their better selves and leaving them broken. In God of the Plains, even through the racism that threatens the trust and dependence on neighbours, one sees the prairie people like the crocuses surfacing in snowbound March: “They aren’t the prettiest flowers in the world, but you have to admire their gumption.” One learns the beauty of inner-strength from Gail Robinson’s God of the Plains and one learns to expect and to do battle with Fear from Kevin Patterson’s Consumption.
- French Canadian Lives by Jeanne Perrault
Books reviewed: Talon by Paulette Dubé
- Massacres and Floods by Barbara Pell
Books reviewed: Children of the Day by Sandra Birdsell and The Wreckage by Michael Crummy
- Lie to Me by Robert Stacey
Books reviewed: Make Believe Love by Lee Gowan, Liar by Joanna Gosse, Half Known Lives by Joan Givner, and Ondine's Curse by Steven Manners
- Amour et jouissance by Christine St-Pierre
Books reviewed: La Blonde de Patrick Nicol by Patrick Nicol and Pour une croûte by Alexandre Laferrière
- Le coeur de la tempête à lire by Jean-Sebastian Ménard
Books reviewed: Le coeur de la tempête by Herménégilde Chiasson and Louis-Dominique Lavigne
MLA: Fraser, Jennifer. Survival of the Courageous. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #193 (Summer 2007), Canada Reads. (pg. 150 - 152)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.