Mountain Community, Mountain Adventure

Reviewed by Angie Abdou

Sean Arthur Joyce’s Mountain Blues and Gisèle Villeneuve’s Rising Abruptly bring to life a region under-represented in Canadian literature: the mountainous terrain and small communities of southern Alberta and the southern Interior of BC. The similarity
of the two offerings ends there. Where Villeneuve’s work leans toward the poetic and abstract, Joyce’s narrative remains firmly planted in social realism. Rising Abruptly examines intimate relationships, where Mountain Blues seems more interested in civic responsibilities. Villeneuve focuses on adventure and Joyce on politics. Together, the two books deliver a well-rounded portrait of life in the Canadian mountains.

Mountain Blues is a first-person narrative from the perspective of Roy Breen, a Vancouver journalist who moves to the West Kootenay in the midst of a controversy over hospital cutbacks. The novel follows a strictly chronological timeline and a traditional narrative arc. The conflict hinges on whether the townsfolk can save their emergency room. All the key players of a typical Kootenay community make an appearance: the loggers, the hippies, the miners, and the draft dodgers (they prefer “draft resisters”). Joyce’s fictional Eldorado is a believable—even lovable—town that manages to be “backwoods but not backwards.” Mountain Blues captures the Kootenay sensibility well, sometimes too well. Readers who have sat through interminable save-the-hospital meetings in their own mountain communities might not be keen to relive those meetings on the page.

Despite Breen’s occasionally sexist commentary and his awkward reflections on his “old pocket rocket,” the author clearly intends him as one of the good guys. Breen aligns himself with the underdog, fighting for the hospital. Readers who identify with this altruistic quest will be rewarded. Mountain Blues feels written for the screen, arriving at the emotionally satisfying ending moviegoers have come to expect: “It’s a party, dude. We saved our emergency ward!”

The sensibilities of Rising Abruptly are more literary, the stories less prone to firm conclusions and more likely to engage in philosophical exploration of unresolvable issues. The main issue that these seven stories explore is: why do people climb? What responsibility do daredevils have to the loved ones they leave behind? Despite the emphasis on extreme sport, the stories tend toward the cerebral rather than the physical, sometimes even becoming surprisingly static as characters contemplate the reasons for adventure rather than engaging in it. The brother in the first story is one reader-surrogate, attempting to decode his (dead) sister’s attraction to the mountain. Content to get his adventure from a book, he remains curious about the mindset of a hard-core climber—particularly that of his sister, who viewed a climb as a one-night stand with the mountain. His reflection on passion and fear establishes the thematic preoccupations of the collection. The first  story’s lens—a narrator trying to understand an absent relative’s mountain obsession—also plays itself out with variation in the stories that follow. Villeneuve’s distinctive voice, poetic style, and intimate narration make Rising Abruptly an important addition to the bookshelves of readers who love the mountains.

This review “Mountain Community, Mountain Adventure” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 151-152.

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