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.

09 The Last Woman

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Last Woman

Review: Into the Wilds of Papua New Guinea (The White Mary by Kira Salak)

The black waters of Elobi Creek show no sign of a current. It is another dead waterway, Marika tells herself, one that will breed only mosquitoes and crocodiles. Another waterway that somehow reflects – in the darkness of the water, in its stillness – all of her failings. These waters, this breathless heat, seem to be waiting for a response from her, a call to action.

The White Mary takes us deep into the breath-taking jungles and over the mountains of Papua New Guinea. It is a geography Kira Salak – who has won a PEN award for journalism – knows well and one that she’s written about as a journalist. Four Corners is a nonfiction account of a trip she made to PNG. The White Mary, however, is a fiction that draws on Salak’s adventures and demonstrates her writing skills.

On the surface, Marika – who is The White Mary – sets out to discover whether her hero, award-winning journalist Robert Lewis, is actually dead. On another level, she quests for herself.

Traumatized by on-the-job “risk-taking and near-death escapes” as a war-reporter, Marika’s personal life crumbles. During her freefall she becomes obsessed with Lewis and begins writing his biography. The idea that Lewis could have committed suicide repels her, and she begins tracing his steps. The journey she undertakes is harrowing and utterly believable.

We see the pictures in National Geographic of lost tribes and read about rumours that cannibalistic others exist deeper in insect-infested swampland not yet explored by adventurers and anthropologists. Salak takes us on one of these “interior” forays. She sketches scenes and evokes wonder and despair. Her characters exhibit empathy, repulsion, fear, kindness, and desperation – the whole range of humanness, including greed and destruction.

Years ago, I worked with a woman who taught English as a second language in Papua New Guinea. This was during the time after the eastern half of island became independent (of Australia), although remained part of the British Commonwealth. (The western half is controlled by Indonesia and known as Papua and West Papua.) My colleague was there prior to the 1988 uprising that killed 20,000 people. The island has a history of being a complex and troubled part of the world. So, I was primed to discover more about this island in Melanesia; I wasn’t disappointed.

Written in the tradition of jungle-adventure stories, The White Mary gives us a convincing human drama that unfolds in the harshest of environments – in canoes that leak, on foot across swamps where leeches and snakes are not the only dangers, where witchcraft abounds, and where supplies are few: “some fire-making implements, water-filled gourds, and walnut-sized betel nuts to chew.” In this place (within and without), Marika feels “…there’s too much pain. The pit is bottomless, vast. There’s just too much….[H]er screams won’t stop. Her cries clog her throat, and she chokes and wails.” Her tough exterior breaks. But this is not the end of the story. For that, you will need to visit your library or bookstore.

10 The White Mary

Available from your local bookstore and online: The White Mary

Review: Lost in the Southern Atlantic (Hippolyte’s Island by Barbara Hodgson)

…owners of small sailboats…advised him to think big and those with big boats…urged him to think small. They showed him where their hulls were rotting and where their masts had cracked. They talked of the endless work, the alarming drain of money and the worry of storms, vandalism, and amateurs. And they told him, as they looked away from the land and out to the water, that they loved their boats and wouldn’t dream of giving them up.

To suggest that Hippolyte Webb is an eccentric character would be an understatement. He chases a dream, which could prove to be folly. In preparation for his travels, he takes a sailing class and conducts (some) research before adventuring in search of islands (the Auroras in the South Atlantic) that were recorded during the early 19th century but have since fallen off maps.

Hippolyte possesses a falling-over-the-edge creativity, as he dreams, prepares, and eventually sails away from the Falklands to his mysterious destination. He’s wrangled a book deal, which motivates note-making, photographing (he runs out of film), and sketching. Oh, yes, and he keeps a rather unique sailor’s log. He also muses,

“It’s a strange sensation to be slicing through the water in the dark with no idea what’s ahead or what’s been left behind.”

This reminds me of my first overnight sail between the Dutch Antilles and the British Virgin Islands. Other passages remind me of sudden storms, the terrifying racket of sails, and the tossing of the boat, bow-to-stern, and port-to-starboard. At one point, Hippolyte notes,

“If I had known the things I know now about being at sea, I never would have done this. I take so much for granted on land; taking anything for granted at sea is certain doom.”

As you have likely guessed – I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say – Hippolyte finds the Auroras and makes a few discoveries of his own before returning to the Falklands and on to New York for the editing of his book. This is when we meet his editor Marie, who is not impressed with Hippolyte’s manuscript. She informs him:

“We simply need to address tense, grammar, pacing, chronology, style, and balance. It’s a normal part of the process….”

Editors and writers who have been through the process of a book’s manufacture will giggle and shudder at the machinations both Marie and Hippolyte must endure. Toward the end of the story (apropos to nothing really, but beautiful), when Marie is doing some extraordinary fact-checking, there is a passage that establishes time, place, and mood (maybe apropos to something). So, for the writers among readers:

“They headed off past the tree, which was heavy with already fermenting, wizened little apples and swarming with early wasps. The tops of long weeds brushed Marie’s hands, burrs attached themselves to her clothing, flies and wasps flew into her face. And it was hot. After fifteen minutes they arrived at the perimeter of a scraggly yard, fenced in with barbed wire.”

The islands metamorphose out of fog and invisibility. Marie metamorphoses too. Hippolyte remains quirky, enthusiastic, and full of surprises.

As you can tell, I sailed along with Hippolyte and relived some of my editing experiences. I enjoyed the book immensely, not least because of the illustrations – the sketches that appear amidst the type and the inserted pages from Hippolyte’s notes that include diagrams, maps, watercolours, sketches and photographs. Barbara Hodgson takes us on a magical journey in the discovery of the islands and Hippolyte’s writing of the tale.

 

Hippolyte’s Island won first prize for Prose Fiction, Alcuin Society Book Design Awards, and the Best Complete Book Design, Applied Arts Design and Advertising Annual.

Available from your local bookstore, or in paperback edition online: Hippolyte’s Island