(Up)rooting Generations

Reviewed by Caela Fenton

What sorts of stories are embedded in land? This seems to be the driving question behind Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s The Spawning Grounds and Sharon Butala’s Wild Rose. As Canadian authors, both writers demonstrate a curiosity towards narratives of settlement.

Anderson-Dargatz’s novel takes place within the Thompson-Shuswap region, in the fictional town of Lightning River. The narrative is elliptical, alternating between the 1850s, when Eugene Robertson was the first white settler to lay claim to the river, and his present-day descendants, Hannah and her brother, Bran. Dargatz’s is a story of generationality, seamlessly guiding readers through changing mindsets, clinging prejudices, and altered environments. The idea of being marked by one’s generation does not apply solely to the humans of the novel, but rather to the non-humans as well. The story, during each time period depicted, revolves around the health of the river and, most essentially, the salmon.

Anderson-Dargatz’s critique of colonial imposition is not subtle: “Like so many of his countrymen, Eugene had sought out the wilderness but then forced his British civilities upon it.” The casual racism that Hannah and Bran’s grandfather, Stew, demonstrates towards the Shuswap community across the river, and his grandchildren’s resulting mortification, capture the spectrum of shifting perspectives while offering hope for the future. Stew also supports the sale of the land to real-estate developers, a proposal which Hannah and Bran work with the Shuswap community to halt.

With the novel’s call to action for the respect of both environment and Indigenous cultures, it seems hard to believe that Anderson-Dargatz also takes on an element of magic realism through the tale of the “water mystery,” a figure of Shuswap lore. While the telling of Shuswap stories, through the writing of Shuswap characters, may be problematic given Anderson-Dargatz’s white settler identity, the depiction is respectful and obviously deeply researched. Likewise, the ecological crisis depicted in Anderson-Dargatz’s fictional town is an accurate portrayal of the Thompson-Shuswap region’s issues with overfishing, overdrawing for irrigation, and warming ocean temperatures. The conservation activities carried out by Hannah and her classmates reflect Anderson-Dargatz’s husband’s involvement in river restoration projects in both British Columbia and Ontario. Thus, The Spawning Grounds goes beyond a call to action and sets out a clear plan of implementation, as seen when Hannah gives her father the same speech she gives elementary school groups: keeping cattle away, planting trees to prevent erosion, and banning fishing until numbers are up. The message that elder generations may learn from younger ones rings throughout the text.

Butala’s novel offers a different version of colonial settlement through the eyes of Sophie, a member of the Quebec upper class in the 1880s who escapes the confines of societal expectations by going West with her young husband. Butala’s novel, like Anderson-Dargatz’s, has temporal shifts, but it stays within Sophie’s own lifetime, sliding back and forth from childhood to adulthood. Wild Rose is a story of emerging female agency, of a woman in the land often discussed as some sort of “male Eden,” a place where a woman might be abandoned with no repercussions and a wife is a hot commodity. Butala’s novel reaches for the overlooked female narrative of prairie settlement in its depiction of Sophie and the staunch female settlers she encounters. While Sophie’s paradigm shifts regarding what it means to be a woman, a mother, and a wife, lending a tone of empowerment to the novel, her attitudes towards Indigenous peoples and members of the lower class are an accurate depiction of snobbish Catholic prejudice. The novel’s derogatory references to Indigenous peoples, while no doubt embodying the mindset of the time, are jarring in a contemporary text.

Both novels adopt a reverential tone with regard to land. Anderson-Dargatz focuses on the inseparable intimacy between the human and the non-human, calling forth Shuswap stories of “when animal and man were still family, a man’s soul could flit away as an owl, or the spirit of a bear could slip under a man’s skin,” and defining the youngest generation of her novel by its concern for environmental degradation. Butala, on the other hand, writes a land of incomprehensibility:

No one, [Sophie] thought, could gaze at [the prairie sky] and think this vast, glittering dome could hold so puny a thing as a heaven, would tolerate a silly human paradise. In that instant she disbelieved.

(Dis)belief is what grounds both novels, and it is rooted in the land we call Canada.

This review “(Up)rooting Generations” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 117-118.

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