Protect What You Love

Reviewed by Brenda Johnston

New works by Daniel Griffin and Karen Hofmann, both set in British Columbia, follow characters who desire to protect the things they love, whether old-growth forests or disconnected family members.

Two Roads Home is the first novel by Kingston-born Griffin, who now calls Victoria home, and who previously published a collection of short stories, Stopping for Strangers. The novel reimagines the peaceful anti-logging protests of the 1990s, posing the question, “What if the protests weren’t peaceful?” Inspired by both the non-violent actions of the Clayoquot Sound protesters and the violent acts against mining operations and the nuclear industry by the Squamish Five/Direct Action in the early 1980s, Griffin presents Earth Action Now, five urban guerrillas who set off a bomb in a logging company compound on Vancouver Island. A problem with the timing mechanism leaves a security guard seriously injured, and a chain of events with far-reaching consequences is set in motion. Sympathetically portrayed, Pete Osborne is idealistic and only twenty-four. He deals with the guilt of having set the bomb as he evades a police manhunt by joining a group of coastal off-the-grid squatters, themselves about to be displaced by clear-cutting. The other activists struggle to decide their next course of action, not knowing what has happened to Pete; alongside them, readers reflect deeply on the line between resistance and terrorism. Concerned only with finding and supporting her son, Pete’s protective mother in Ontario also tries to track him down.

There are no easy answers to the knotty questions raised by the threat of greed and development and society’s guilt over its complicity. When Pete puts his arms around a nearby cedar and hears “the wood, the deep groan of it, the tree’s voice” while thinking of the battleground the wilderness had become, many readers will likewise yearn for the “peaceful quiet wonder” of the woods. The language is descriptive yet direct and well edited to keep the pace moving and to build the tension in this eco-thriller despite the eventual clichéd arrival of a spirit animal. Will Pete find a way to redeem himself or will he continue to run? Protests and eco-terrorism are not only in the past; Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion project and BC Hydro’s Site C megaproject threaten lands, rivers, and the Salish Sea that many people do not want to see harmed or altered. Two Roads Home is a timely novel.

Butterfly Lake, near Squamish, BC, was logged, but by the end of the 1990s, the forest began to grow back and the salmon and other wildlife returned. What Is Going to Happen Next begins twenty years earlier when the five Lund siblings are forced to scatter after their father’s death and their mother’s hospitalization in a psychiatric facility. The prologue, “Before,” is told from the point of view of precocious twelve-year-old Cleo, who futilely tries to demonstrate that the siblings can take care of themselves and continue their half-wild existence in their isolated community. As in Hofmann’s first novel, After Alice, set in the Okanagan Valley, memory and family life are themes, and What Is Going to Happen Next will particularly appeal to readers who enjoy fiction about family relationships.

Twenty years on, the siblings are in their twenties and thirties and living in Metro Vancouver. Raised in foster care, a group home, and an adoptive family, the siblings take steps to reunite, but their pasts are filtered through unreliable memories. Cleo is a suburban mother with two young children who tries her best at parenting despite the dysfunctional model provided by her family in the past. Her older sister, Mandalay, has a place in the city and a career as the co-manager of a café, but she wonders if she would rather be an artist and have children of her own. Younger brother Cliff is a hard-working labourer for a landscaping company, but trouble finds him because he is guileless and trusting. The perspectives of the three siblings, who have lives of disparate circumstances, dominate the first half of the novel as the fates of the two younger brothers and their mother wait to be revealed. That is, what happened next.

The novel’s title also looks forward to a time of reconciliation and healing from separation. Readers piece together the siblings’ past traumas and the present challenges to find out who has been lost and who will “come back miraculously.” However, as for the salmon returning after decades to the streams of the logged land “that have the right flow, the right kind of gravel bed,” Butterfly Lake will never be the place it once was for the family. Such moments of lovely description pepper the narrative of these complex characters’ lives. As a family saga, the novel is empathetic, compassionate, and expertly paced. The epilogue, “After,” suitably looks to the youngest generation.

Both novels are about finding a way home, even if home is different than it once was. Readers are left to ponder what they would be willing to fight to protect.

This review “Protect What You Love” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 147-148.

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