Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility. House of Anansi Press
The Tinsmith. Brindle & Glass
The most obvious similarities between these two volumes are British Columbia settings, and the unflinching examination of human weakness and the desire for connection. While the short stories in Théodora Armstrong’s collection are set in contemporary regional towns and suburbia, the setting of Tim Bowling’s novel begins in Maryland during the American Civil War and moves to the salmon cannery wars of 1881 at the mouth of the Fraser River. What each writer does particularly well is create an atmosphere of uncertainty, human frailty, and the threat of danger, that is veiled by or embedded in the local landscape.
In a 2013 CBC radio interview, Armstrong discusses the title of her collection. She notes a common element in her stories: an interest in expectations and perceptions about life that arise out of a desire for perfect conditions. When unexpected events take place, relationships are altered and individuals look back to a time when life seemed simpler or easier. Armstrong’s characters, many of them children or teens, navigate the edges of risky behaviours, rebellion, sexuality, and power. In each story, there is a sense of dread—the possibility of some unexpected threat presenting itself, changing lives forever. A boy sets a large fire to impress his brother. Teens in Lynn Canyon leap into the cold pools and explore the range of risks available to them. A young aircraft controller experiences the loss of control that occurs when a small plane crashes. Armstrong is skilled at creating scenes that are familiar, whether in terms of landscape (such as the desert of Interior BC or the wet coastal forest of Vancouver Island), or people’s attempts at connection. Parents fail to understand their children; spouses forget how to relate to each other; siblings move together and apart in a dance of individualism. Armstrong’s stories, while written with a clear, direct, and compelling style, are not simplistic. They capture the uncertainty of love, the obstacles to intimacy, and the difficulties that come from yearning for something but having to pay the price when it is achieved. Armstrong’s style is reminiscent of Madeleine Thien’s, with her emphasis on regionalism and the painful realities of missing parents, drug abuse, and contemporary urban life.
Bowling, like Armstrong, explores the human potential for violence and moral ambiguity. However, he depicts the bloody realities of war as seen primarily through the eyes of an army doctor, Anson Baird, who is forced to approach most patients with a saw and a plan to amputate, and through the character of the tinsmith, John, a (possibly) mix-raced young man who helps tend the wounded. When Baird realizes that John is on the run and may have killed his slave-master, he protects him by giving him a new identity. The story then moves forward 20 years to New Westminster, BC where John (now William Dare) has made enemies on the river. This character, first developed by Bowling in one of his early poems, remains mysterious, his true actions hidden by assumptions about race.
As Bowling admits, his novel is “about the kind of violence we do” and Bowling does not fail to paint vivid pictures of the death and destruction of humans and landscapes created by war, nor does he avoid detailed description of the violent treatment of black slaves prior to and during the Civil War. Bowling’s meticulous research and careful recreation of the Battle of Antietam, as well as the violence inherent in the salmon harvest, provide a frightening testimony to the ways in which humankind leaves death and environmental destruction in its wake. The Tinsmith could be read as an exploration of the slipperiness of identity relating to bloodlines and race—how one man’s life can be made or ruined by the lightness or darkness of his skin. It could also be read as a warning of the inevitable destruction of our environmental resources when greed, politics, or the promise of profits become primary motivators for change. Does The Tinsmith, like the Canadian historical fiction discussed by Herb Wyile in Speculative Fictions: Contemporary Canadian Novelists and the Writing of History, fit into the category of “post-colonial”? Does it challenge traditional narratives and create conversations about the treatment of minorities in Canada? Yes, undoubtedly it does. However, I argue that Bowling’s primary interest lies in creating an atmosphere that probes human moral actions. A finalist of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, Bowling clearly demonstrates a high quality of writing and his greatest achievement as a writer thus far.