Recent Western Writing

  • Tammy Armstrong and George McWhirter
    Pye-Dogs. Oberon Press
  • Marc Ory
    Understories. Caitlin Press
  • Anusree Roy
    River of Gold. Ronsdale Press
  • David Yee and Shirley Mahood
    Hooker & Brown. Brindle & Glass
Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley

Hooker and Brown, Jerry Auld’s first novel, describes the alpine adventures of a young man on the brink of graduate school. He skirts that precipice, but finds himself in equally dangerous circumstances as part of a trail crew in the Canadian Rockies. The danger is often physical—Auld writes powerfully about climbing’s fine line between success and dire failure—but also textual. The protagonist combs the writings of colonial explorers and early mountaineers for information about two legendary peaks, Hooker and Brown, thus unravelling a historical mystery. Auld is strong on the technical aspects of mountaineering and on fraught relationships among climbers. The high mountains are finely evoked. Yet the novel’s formulaic narrative and romantic subplots render it melodramatic at times. And no less than Earle Birney’s “David,” Hooker and Brown presents the mountains as a site in which men are tested and forced to confront grim reality. (As indeed they, and women, sometimes are; but the writer must find a way to avoid overly familiar terrain.) The novel is nonetheless often enjoyable, a good book for the backpack—although Auld’s high-performance climbers would leave it at home to save weight.
One of my favourite poems in Understories, Al Rempel’s first collection, offers a different understanding of another forbidding landscape. In “Saskatchewan Glacier,” walkers “lose a sense of scale and the push of time” as they approach, but do not reach, the glacier. The poem begins with local lore: “they say there’s an old army jeep / trapped under the ice somewhere . . . and one day / water will leak from the cracked dash / and drip free from the gas gauge.” Yet glacier and jeep are inaccessible; Rempel uses their remoteness to suggest the difficulty of apprehending the size and age of geological formations. At a glacial lake, according to the speaker, “everything, even the water, looks old; / we trace our fingers in the silty clay / writing to ourselves about how close we got.” In “At the Other End of the Tide,” the next poem, an avalanche of images illustrates what “the Rockies” “shru[g] off”: “sheets of mica / thin as frost on a window pane,” “mountaineers by the jeep-full,” “bad luck,” “stories of grizzlies,” “the cold.” Rempel’s comic juxtaposition of geological and glaciological terms (till, eskers, moraines, trilobites) with descriptions of human “flotsam” (“small VWs, rattling loose guitars and tambourines,” “plastic wrappers,” “rented RVs”) leaven the poem’s stern claim that the mountains are utterly impassive. Many of the other poems in the volume depict aspects of life in Prince George. Understories is published by Caitlin Press, which has developed quite an interesting list of poets based in north-central British Columbia, including Ken Belford, Rob Budde, Barry McKinnon, and Gillian Wigmore. I was deaf to the music of some of Rempel’s poetry, but Understories at its best demonstrates the poet’s talent for listening closely to the surrounding world.

In Tammy Armstrong’s Pye-Dogs, the coastal landscapes of B.C.’s Sunshine Coast are the setting for conflict between locals (striking millworkers, longtime residents) and newcomers (environmentalists, commune-dwellers, tree-spikers). The tensions that arise as a result of competing understandings of place—the utopian impulse disrupts the established patterns of life in the resource-industry community—are familiar to readers of Jack Hodgins’ novels of Vancouver Island or Bill Gaston’s Sointula. The island on which Pye-Dogs takes place is accessible only by ferry, that fact of life on the coast (adored by visitors, reviled by locals) that lends itself so well to metaphor. Ferries allow passage between worlds: between the living and the dead, here and there, centre and margin, familiar and strange, home and away. The novel depicts the distances between such worlds, as well as attempts to span them. Ferry trips punctuate the novel’s narrative; arrivals and departures mark the rhythm of island life:

Rye Bob sat fsor some moments watching the marina: sails billowed, the boats shuttled in and out of the harbour where the ferry crew, in their orange vests, smoked down at the dock and waited for the 40-car Queen of Capilano to return over the sun-capped Strait. It was a clear day. The mainland was a pachyderm of green, peaked with snow still in places. The glaciers would keep all summer, merely softening, as the days grew warmer.

Despite the idyllic setting, however, Armstrong’s island is an unhappy, claustrophobic place, in which class divisions and family tensions make coexistence difficult. Armstrong is a careful observer of riven places and people, but her characters are in fact tightly linked by sadness and desperation.

Susan Dobbie’s River of Gold is set during the Fraser River gold rush of the early 1860s; the novel is a sequel to When Eagles Call (published by Ronsdale in 2003). Some versions of the history are well known: Pierre Berton’s Klondike (1958) includes accounts of the search for gold in the Fraser Canyon, and this is Robert Service territory, too. Dobbie’s novel offers a revision of conventional accounts, however, focusing on the confluence in the Cariboo of people of different origins. Colonial British Columbia is portrayed as a highly multicultural world, constituted by Scots, Californians, Nlaka’pamux, Sto:lo, Chinese, French-Canadian voyageurs, African Americans; the narrator is Hawaiian. The novel is convincingly researched, but at times the dialogue bears a heavy expository burden. River of Gold celebrates the Cariboo’s rich history, but it also contains an elegiac dimension:

Geography has become the topic of all conversation. There’s talk of the great watershed dividing the Cariboo, of gold-bearing rivers flowing into a great unnamed lake. Unknown rivers and streams are taking miners’ names. The natives would argue that point. For thousands of years they’ve had names for them. But now places receive English names, as miners stake claims, hack their way through the wilderness, slash trees and build themselves log cabins.

The arrival of newcomers meant profound changes to the ways of life of the original inhabitants. This is one of the West’s oldest and saddest stories, told again and again.

This review “Recent Western Writing” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 144-146.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.