All Aboard

Reviewed by Zachary Abram

The ceremony to drive the last spike into the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1885 was apparently a muted affair meant to mark the completion of a project beset by an endless series of catastrophes, bankruptcies, and at least one violent insurgency. Since then, however, this spike has come to represent the precise moment Canadian national unity was achieved. The schism between reality and symbol is understandable. It’s hard not to be romantic about train travel, which conjures images of dining cars, the Orient Express, and fraught encounters with charming strangers. The reality of train travel, characterized by days-old sandwiches and a shrinking service map, has not punctured its undeniable allure. This juxtaposition is something Jocelyne Saucier understands intuitively. Her fifth novel, And Miles To Go Before I Sleep, is a celebration of the particular freedom train travel can offer.


The opening pages of the novel feature a beautiful hand-drawn map. This is more typical of fantasy epics meant to orient readers to imaginary lands like Middle Earth or Narnia. Saucier’s map, though, depicts the distinctly less fantastical world of railways in Ontario and Quebec. At the novel’s outset, the narrator introduces the somewhat extraordinary case of Gladys Comeau who, apparently without warning, “climbed aboard the Northlander and was never seen again” in her hometown (9). Her hometown, the improbably named Swastika, is described as “not an easy place to leave.” This is meant quite literally. The railroad is under constant threat of closure and the fact that a meagre 200 people populate Swastika means that Gladys’s departure was never going to escape the scuttlebutt inherent to small-town life. Any sympathy the reader has for Gladys’ escape is quickly problematized by the revelation that Gladys has abandoned her adult daughter, Lisana, who “has Death in her soul” and has made several attempts to take her own life.


The central question of the narrative is why Gladys got on that train with no fixed destination or plan. The burden of answering that question falls to the narrator. Obsessed with trains, the narrator’s “purpose is not to put her on trial,” but rather to painstakingly retrace Gladys’s steps. In the role of detective, the narrator discovers that not only was Gladys born on a train, but educated on one as well. The train is the place, simultaneously fixed and moving, where she found love and knew peace. Perhaps, her later railway adventure was merely her attempt to recover the sense of freedom she had as a child, when life’s possibilities seemed endless. Saucier’s novel, translated vividly from French by Rhonda Mullins, offers no easy answers. The narrator concedes that Gladys’s decision “has been subject to many interpretations.” In her depictions of the polyphony of voices that denounce and praise Gladys in equal measure, And Miles To Go Before I Sleep performs the function of any sophisticated metafiction: to remind its readers that stories do not tell themselves. Every narrative is constructed by writers through a process of selection and omission according to their own values, rather than a commitment to strict verisimilitude.


Saltus by Tara Gereaux similarly depicts a place that is not easy to leave, and describes the various forces, seen and unseen, that conspire to keep a person’s life and identity fixed. Set in the early 1990s in a small prairie town, the titular Saltus appears to be one of those places that remains stubbornly untouched by change: “Going nowhere for far too long.” Then, suddenly, something shocking happens. The novel examines the ramifications of one mother’s decision on the various Saltus residents who become entangled in its aftermath. Each inhabitant of the town responds with a mixture of pity and scorn to a decision they don’t quite understand, but Gereaux carefully reveals how the reverberations of this incident force everyone caught in its wake to confront the ways in which they too are alienated.


Unsurprisingly, an interloper makes the decision that disrupts Saltus’s sacred status quo. Nadine is a wilful single mother whose trans child’s quest for gender-affirming medical care is stymied by an intransigent and indifferent healthcare system. A mother’s desperation to save her child, who has made a serious suicide attempt, compels her to seek an unsanctioned, dangerous alternative: “Trauma makes people do things they normally wouldn’t.” As in Saucier’s novel, Saltus is told from multiple viewpoints. Each character sympathizes with or condemns Nadine according to their particular notions of value and propriety: “You can’t make sense of crazy.” Even in their opprobrium, Nadine’s plight cannot help but force each witness to probe aspects of their identity that they might prefer to wall off: “sometimes I wonder if there was another person I was meant to be.” There is the cop, Roger, who is hours from retirement, but doesn’t relish the prospect of knowing himself divorced from the authority afforded by a badge and gun. There is Trish, a waitress, who bristles at her status as mother and townie but who “has made choices that have kept her here.”


Saltus’ most compelling denizen, however, is Lenore. Lenore is alienated from her Métis identity because she was raised in a settler household: “She didn’t feel Métis, if there was such a thing. It was strange to think she was an entirely different person than she knew.” Her attempts to reconnect with her heritage are thwarted by trauma and addiction, leaving her identity perpetually in flux. Gereaux movingly depicts a town in crisis, but the trans character at the centre remains a convenient symbol, like that final spike, masking a more complex reality, only ever perceived by others and never empowered to take the reins of the narrative. While Gereaux wishes to explore the cisgender characters’ reactions to alterity, the decision not to grant the lone trans character agency is conspicuous. In fact, this choice runs the risk of reiterating the existing power structures that contribute to trans erasure in the first place, a decision which counters to the novel’s otherwise sensitive portrayal.

This review “All Aboard” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 18 Jul. 2022. Web.

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