Well written fiction has the power to convey truth with heightened sensitivity and insight. With these three works, however, it is the single non-fiction work, the truthful stories of Northern Kids, that provide the inspiration and pique the interest. The fictional novels As Long as the Rivers Flow and Grandpère fall short of fully engaging our imaginations and expanding our thinking.
Northern Kids is a series of short stories told from the perspectives of youth living or formerly living in northern Canada. Linda Goyette hears the stories personally or reads them in archives, books, and libraries. In her introduction, Goyette talks of tragic stories pouring south as though through a funnel, and how hearing only these stories distorts the truth. The stories she collects and presents aim to remedy that situation. Though some are about tragic events—deaths, disease, fires—overwhelmingly they are positive. They celebrate survival and the sheer joy of life and living in the North.
Goyette retells stories in her own words in the first person. At the close of each, she includes a section entitled:
What do we know for sure? Here she relates how she found the particular story, what eventually happened to the children involved, what parts of the story she embellished, and what parts she verified in her research.
Northern Kids would be enjoyed by both younger and older readers. The stories recognize, respect, and illuminate the worldviews and ways of life presented in the different stories. The
What do we know for sure? sections provide a model for thinking about, analyzing, and further researching the subject matter. Goyette suggests additional resources (including her own website) for further exploration of story topics. Potential historical, cultural, and geographical lessons are varied and numerous.
As Long as the Rivers Flow is also a work with an educational aim. James Bartleman seeks to teach readers about terrible living conditions, and specifically the issue of youth suicide, in northern Ontario First Nations communities. A member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation of Southern Ontario, former diplomat, and Lieutenant of Ontario, he gained a fuller understanding of northern Aboriginal communities later in life. Reading Bartleman’s novel, I couldn’t help asking myself why the author chose to tell this horrific story of the Indian Residential Schools, and their enduring effects on Native people, as fiction. There is so much actual
truth in Bartleman’s descriptions of life for residential school students, that I suspect the actual stories of former students could readily replace this fictional one.
Writing fiction set in the Indian Residential Schools is akin to writing fiction set in the Rwandan genocide or the Holocaust. In Bartleman’s attempts to maintain historical accuracy, he crams too much background information into too few pages. He seemingly tries to fit
everything about Native communities and cultures into his story. As a result, much in the novel is not covered in sufficient depth. For example, Bartleman tries to close on a positive, hopeful note. After all the pain and death, however, the movement to reconciliation and healing seem overly simplistic. I can’t believe that a single encounter between priests and community is able to completely resolve the emotional and moral issues.
Grandpère is the first person narrative of Anzel O’Flaherty, the granddaughter of SiMon Wakim/Simon Walker. While author Janet Romain leads us to believe that the primary subject of this novel is Simon, except for the specific passages in which he relays one of his stories (in which he becomes the first person narrator), the actual protagonist is Anzel.
In the last part of his life, Simon lives on Anzel’s farm. He retains his independence and self-sufficiency at the age of ninety-eight. His determination is contrasted throughout the novel with others of his age and younger that live in the local retirement home. We hear Simon’s stories as he relates them to Anzel, and we learn more about him through his interaction with Anzel, but he remains largely a flat character. It is Anzel and Anzel alone who we come to know well. Her children and grandchildren, her friends, even the man who becomes her partner, all remain simple characters as though presented solely to better reflect Anzel.
Compared to As Long as the Rivers Flow, Grandpère is a much lighter story. Grandpère has lived a full life. Overcoming loss and tragedy, he has maintained his identity as a free Carrier man. His overall story is a positive one. His family—as clearly evidenced by Anzel and her children and grandchildren—continues to survive and to thrive.
Unfortunately, both As Long as the Rivers Flow and Grandpère, despite lofty and well-intentioned purposes, suffer from common pitfalls of new novelists. Dialogue is often unnatural or presented only for the purpose of conveying information. While many individual events ring true, the depth to which these events are revealed and the manner in which they are strung together, too often make them less than plausible.
I know that the subjects Bartleman and Romain write about are based in actual events. I am disappointed that—aside from brief glimpses—neither author illuminated their truth more fully for me. Goyette, on the other hand, told me in her introduction that northern kids have shaped Canada. Through re-telling their individual, unique stories, and showing some genuine interest, she unpretentiously showed me truths I would not otherwise have seen.