The Last Journey (East of the Mountains by David Guterson)

Underfoot, a fine sand shifted and confounded his progress. A strange apprehension haunted his limbs. He changed his direction twice, three times. Low, barren mountains appeared on the horizon. A lunar barrenness, the topography of dreams, stones strewn artfully down an arroyo as if laid by a Japanese gardener, a sinuous bend in the dry bed of stones, one, stone, two, a stone carved in runes… .

Like David Guterson’s award-winning Snow Falling on Cedars, East of the Mountains, is dense with description that uses all of the senses to draw us into place and experience. Besides the extraordinary detail, the end-papers provide a map of the mountain journey to help us traverse the route taken. East of the Mountains is an Odyssey, except we cross mountains rather than sea.

In Snow, Guterson explores relationships between Japanese Americans and their Caucasian neighbours along the northwest coast of the U.S. during WWII. East of the Mountains moves inland but remains true to place, although in this book the relationships involve Mexican migrant farm labourers. Here, the major conflict is within his protagonist Dr. Ben Givens and between Givens and the orchardists and other residents of the area. But East of the Mountains is essentially a character study that reveals one man’s journey toward death and acceptance.

The story is raw with pain: of bereavements; of terminal cancer and dying; a particular gun and the hunting of small birds (with two Brittany spaniels); and Italy during WWII. Balancing the emotions these themes elicit are tranquil orchard scenes from Givens’ youth; love and sensuously drawn passion; and his openness to life’s surprises.

The doctor plans suicide to protect himself from the pain he knows lies ahead and to protect his family from witnessing it. He goes off toward his childhood home among orchards to see it one more time. He hasn’t reached it in this scene where he’s arrived at a rough town. He feels like “a transient pauper, a graybeard drifter, a derelict or vagrant.” He’s on a quest, which he’s beginning to recognize:

Sitting there with his jug in his lap he thought of those Hindu wanderers he’s seen on a public television documentary, mendicants abroad with begging bowls, dressed in rags and clutching staffs, divested of all other property, seeking to meet the world unencumbered, aspiring, always, toward—what did they call it?—atman, the self, God. 

Soon, Givens will wrangle a ride with a trucker. As they share their stories, he comes to another kind of realization:

Ben’s heart recoiled. The lean, spare life of the wanderer, which had held some attraction an hour before, held no attraction now.… He tried to embrace some other end than the one he’d chosen for himself—he thought of dying in a hospital room, imagined languishing in one. He fell silent and stared out the window. There were no good answers to important questions. He tried to picture the shape of Stu Robinson’s [the trucker’s] final days, but he couldn’t even begin.

Throughout, Ben Givens is pulled by his moral centre. Haunted by memories and a promise, he seeks—what? answers to the big unanswerable questions, but he tries. He becomes caught up in others’ lives and surmounts his pain (both the memories and the physical, which run a parallel course).

Inevitably, there was no other subject, and he forced himself to muse on death as though it were simply a form of sleep, warm and full of dreams.

His musing finally gave way to sleep, and Ben dreamed he was traveling in the desert. On a journey whose purpose he couldn’t guess.

The inevitability of death and the bigger questions of meaning and memory, and of promises, thread through East of the Mountains. At times, I thought the detail would overwhelm me, but I’m very glad I read to the end in order to experience the epiphanies of personal discovery. Guterson is a writer who isn’t afraid to probe the big questions, and I’m glad I journeyed through waste- and lush lands sharing the loves and fears and coming to acceptance of Ben Givens.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: East of the Mountains

Review (& Controversy): Into Northern Lake Country (The Last Woman by John Bemrose)

“I’ve come to think of her as a sort of Mother Earth figure. You know, Lilith, Eve, the first woman –.”
“I don’t know,” Richard says….”Looks more to me like the last woman.”

The Last Woman by John Bemrose is an elegy for the ending of love; for a forest, clear-cut landscape; for simple equity for the lives of people – in this case Ojibway – who are caught in the ugly transition from “what was” to “what is.” On one level, The Last Woman is the story of a love triangle, simple and straightforward. On another, it is the story of a clash of cultures, each trying to do things for the right reasons and each totally misinterpreting motives. It is about politics where truth and justice don’t matter. It is about a land claim, secrets, ambitions and dreams, art and logic, and the totally different way that indigenous people think about and live on the land. In short, Bemrose has written a complex story, weaving the personal angst of his characters into a web that includes greed along with cultural and environmental destruction. Bemrose’s writing is measured; he doesn’t rant, although readers will see where his sympathies lie.

Over the years, I’ve bought books by the few Indians (First Nations in Canada) who managed to get published. I think that Halfbreed by Maria Campbell was among the first, along with books by N. Scott Momaday. Later, books by Louise Erdrich made their way to my shelf and some by Thomas King, plus harder to read books like for Joshua by Richard Wagamese, poets like Lee Maracle and gritty Métis poet Katherena Vermette. I own Anne Cameron’s Daughters of Copperfield, a book that generated controversy in the early 1980s (that continues to rage) about who has the right to the traditional stories, to their telling. Of course, I have the well-packaged and easy-to-embrace collections of quotes from the speeches of elders, such as Touch the Earth. And yes, academic and anthropological work sits there too.

More recently, publishing has opened to First Nations people in a way that seemed previously closed, and there’s new controversy on the topic of who speaks for whom. The editor of Write: The Magazine of the Writers’ Union of Canada resigned over his editorial in the Spring 2017 issue. He writes: “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.” I suspect that farther down in the editorial his admonition to “Set your sights on the big goal: Win the Appropriation Prize” is what skewered him. I read it as inappropriate, as did many others – not political correctness, but a “middle-finger salute.”  Indigenous people in Canada (likely everywhere) are capable of speaking for themselves. They don’t need interpreters. But there is a blurry line, although both history and today’s reality badly need the First Nations’ perspective. So, back to The First Woman….

Bemrose walks a fine and informed line as he writes about the land claim and as he develops the character of Billy, of Billy’s loss over his cultural heritage, his land, and the trees gone to clear-cutting. He writes with sensitivity about the childhood attraction and, later, physical love that Billy and Anne shared, as he does with the friendship that once existed between Billy and Anne’s husband Richard.

I wonder what critics today would think about Martin, my character in Calla & Édourd. Martin is a fiction, who grew out of my experience living in Winnipeg. My empathy grew out of my grandmother’s reluctance to talk and her mother’s stories. Yet, now I wonder if readers would feel a line has been crossed. But, once more, back to the novel….

The excerpt that leads into this review fixes our thoughts on a painting and on environmental destruction and provides the title for Bemrose’s novel. But the story is about more than that, it digs and niggles down into a core fault-line. I would love to learn what readers – who have read the novel (and maybe mine) – think.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Last Woman