The Pull of the North

Reviewed by Rachel Fernandes

Alienation is prominent theme in both Audrée Wilhelmy’s novel White Resin and Norma Dunning’s short story collection Tainna. Wilhelmy’s characters do not easily fit in with their peers, and tend to haunt the fringes of their society. In Tainna, Dunning’s stories are populated by Inuit characters living away from their traditional territory, dealing with the complications of being uprooted from their history and, in many cases, their families. Both books delve into complications of place: how the land that one is situated upon can affect one’s very spirit. Wilhelmy and Dunning are interested in boundaries in their work: the sometimes blurred line between our world and the spirit world, as well as the firmer boundaries between the harsh yet evocative landscape of the taiga and the unfamiliar land that lies further south.


White Resin is reminiscent of an Impressionist painting: Wilhelmy’s carefully chosen words are like myriad tiny brushstrokes creating a hazy yet enchanting picture of the Québec taiga and the quasi-magical characters who inhabit this world. Wilhelmy draws on the genre of magic realism to weave a story about Daã, a girl born through supernatural means to twenty-four nuns near the Québec taiga. The story follows Daã and her love affair with Laure, a young doctor’s apprentice born with albinism. When the pair move further south for Laure’s work, Daã finds herself uprooted from the natural world and uncomfortable in her new role as a medical officer’s wife in a mining town. The couple’s clashing beliefs about their children’s future forces them to confront the unforgiving landscape to which Daã wishes to return.


The tone of White Resin is consistently melancholic, even as Wilhelmy’s prose (and Susan Ouriou’s translation) are vibrant and rich, reflecting the harsh and sparse landscape against which the novel is set. The language in the book—although gorgeous—is at times so dense and layered that it is difficult to parse. The reader might find themselves unmoored, wading into the poetics of magic realism. The effect is that many things are unclear, from Daã’s sudden arrival with the nuns to the exact time period in which the novel is set.


Daã seems connected to Indigeneity, although her ethnic background is never explicitly explored. Wilhelmy includes a lexicon at the end of the novel explaining the various terms used throughout the book. The languages range from Innu to Inuktitut to Wendat to Lakota (Sioux). The range of Indigenous languages is interesting, but also disorienting. It is unclear whether Daã herself is Indigenous or whether the nuns pass down their own Indigenous knowledge and languages to her. Wilhelmy also draws from European folk traditions: the sections of the book are named after pagan celebrations of the changing seasons. Cultures and languages merge and brush up against one another throughout the book, creating an eclectic vocabulary that also leaves the reader slightly adrift.


Feminine power is a recurring theme in the book: the nuns share their knowledge of the natural world with Daã, who learns to discern and use all kinds of flora for healing purposes. She is eventually able to share this knowledge with her husband, integrating this folk knowledge with his formal medical training. Mother Nature is even more wild and unforgiving than her daughter, Daã. Nature is sometimes ripe and abundant, sometimes stark and empty—ultimately, she cares not about the fate of these characters.


In Inuktitut, Tainna means the unseen ones, and Dunning explores the meanings of this notion through her short stories. The spiritual world and spiritual beings figure prominently throughout the collection, but nowhere more poignantly than in the story “Eskimo Heaven,” in which a somewhat self-righteous priest, Father Peter, is transported by touching the hand of Ittura, a man who has been dead for years. Ittura promises to take the priest to an unseen world, “somewhere you’d never dream of” (59). This place turns out to be a McDonald’s in a city, where the two find themselves eating Filet-O-Fish and checking up on one of Ittura’s stepdaughters who works there. Eskimo heaven is not what Father Peter expects, and neither is Ittura: this ghost is subversive and sexual, humorous and spritely. The trip to Eskimo heaven is meant to teach Father Peter that the Inuit people of his congregation are complex in their inner lives, but also that they need compassion from him and more focus on the present, rather than constant fear and preparation for an afterlife. The story urges the reader to think about Inuit cosmology and life philosophy, focusing on issues in the present moment while still honouring the ancestors.


Each of Dunning’s stories sparkles in its own right, particularly because of the careful rendering of each character. The characters in Dunning’s stories are well-rounded and real; they have memories and care deeply about their loved ones. They embody strength and perseverance in spite of immense opposition and alienation. However, the goal of Dunning’s work is not solely to celebrate the resilience of the Inuit people, but rather to show her characters as complete people, utterly human in their needs, desires, and struggles.

This review “The Pull of the North” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 31 Aug. 2022. Web.

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