Back to the Cabin

Reviewed by Nancy Holmes

In these recent novels from BC, two women writers confront the intersectional problems of colonization, gender, and environmental trouble. Gillian Wigmore’s Glory takes place in northwestern BC and Angie Abdou’s In Case I Go in the southeast corner of the province, each place having glorious landscapes and rich, though injured, Indigenous cultures. Both novels begin with an incursion of the urban into remote rural places. In Glory, Vancouverites relocate to Fort St. James. In In Case I Go, Calgarians move to Coalton—a former mining town, now a recreational resort (a fictional community seemingly based on Fernie, BC). In both novels, the families (non-Indigenous, presumably in the case of Wigmore’s characters) who move into these remote communities are returning to places where they have ancestral settler connections.

Wigmore is a well-known poet in northern BC and Glory is her first novel. Renee is a young woman suffering from depression and psychic shock after a long winter with her new husband and infant in her husband’s long-abandoned family cabin in the territory of the Dakelh, or Carrier, people. She meets two Indigenous women: Glory, a fierce, independent singer-songwriter, and Crystal, a talented musician who is eclipsed by Glory’s vivid personality. At the centre of the community is mighty Lake Stuart, which fulfills the tropes of the literary North: beauty, death, and disappearance. The novel’s main action involves the three women and unfolds over a few days when Renee abandons her husband and baby, and Glory, who has given up a daughter, is further robbed of family when her brothers drown in the lake. The book has some first-novel ungainliness: for example, the drowning of the brothers seems staged to create a crisis. However, the novel provides a refreshing view of young and Indigenous women in the North. Rather than portrayed as victims, they are strong, creative, and resilient. They value female friendship as much as romantic relationships. It is no surprise that poet Wigmore’s writing can be vivid (her description of Renee’s mastitis in the first part of the book is exquisitely excruciating) and she creates a sequence of fine prose poems in the chorus of voices that punctuate the novel.

In Case I Go is Abdou’s fifth novel and it shows the skill her record would suggest. Her characters are believable and the plot deftly juggles slippages of consciousness and chronology, especially through the narrator’s voice. That narrator, Eli, is ten years old and his family has moved to Ktunaxa, or Kootenay, territory, where his great-great-grandfather worked in the mines. They too move into an inherited cabin. The cabins in both novels function as symbols of settler occupation and past violence, but also of a promise of new relationships. Eli strikes up a friendship with his neighbours—Sam, a Ktunaxa forest ecologist, and his niece. The niece’s identity is complex—sometimes she is the niece, and sometimes she is a woman whose English name is Mary but whose true name is hidden. The ghostly dimension where this woman exists draws the boy in, and he becomes burdened with the spirit of his ancestor who, through betrayal, exploitation, and carelessness, caused Mary’s death. Eli has to repair this past wrong in order to recover his life. With the help of Tamara, Sam’s wife (another good-humoured and dynamic Indigenous woman) and another woman, a New Age healer who lives on a secluded goat farm, the boy takes on this task with sweetness and wisdom. The novel is a fine ghost story and it faces tough questions about responsibility for crimes of the past and the complexities of colonial identity (the great-great-grandfather has had to deny his own Muslim heritage) even if Eli’s exorcism seems too simplistic. A failing of the novel might be that the ending enacts a denial of the consequences of trauma: the boy went through a harrowing experience yet seems to comes out unscathed, a kind of wishful thinking that may be at the heart of our hopes for reconciliation in general.

Read together, these novels present BC as a troubled place. But, they also seem to say, as Indigenous cultures rebound, we’ll find a rebellious matriarchal power holding out against the dominant white culture. As Abdou discovered when she became embroiled in issues around permission and consultation, acts of reconciliation that accompany decolonization are difficult. But Abdou offers some thoughts about how to shift storytelling in a colonized country: saying I don’t know and Yes, that happened could be crucial. These two novels are working in the spirit of that reflective language.

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