A less audacious author, when splitting his 600-page epic of the American West into three separate narratives, would have simply written three books and published them as a trilogy. That way, readers could skip the less scintillating sections of Philipp Meyer’s The Son and focus only on the near-mythic tale of Eli McCullough, the first boy born in the Republic of Texas, who is kidnapped as a child and raised by wandering Comanche warriors.
But then Meyer, a high school dropout from Baltimore, Md., who worked as an emergency medical technician and a derivatives trader before quitting to become a writer, does nothing by half-measures. Meyer had not lived in Texas until he moved to Austin for grad school in 2005, but he spent five years researching and writing The Son, reading some 300 books on Texas, teaching himself how to hunt with a bow, and shooting a buffalo so he could experience what it was like to drink its blood.
Meyer’s research methods may sound extreme — or perhaps exaggerated, depending on your degree of cynicism — but, whatever, it pays off on the page. The sections of the novel dealing with Eli’s son, Peter, and his great-granddaughter, Jeannie, brim with historical insights but occasionally stall out as narrative. The long sections about Eli and his years riding with the Comanches at the blood-soaked edges of the American frontier, on the other hand, are as riveting and sensually vivid as any book I’ve read about the American West since Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
The Son serves as a bookend to Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, which I wrote about in last year’s Year in Reading series. The Orenda, set in the 1600s in what is now Ontario, Canada, tackles the story of the European conquest of North America from the Native perspective. The Son, set in Texas in the 1800s and 1900s, comes at the story from the white settlers’ point of view. But both books set out, as only great fiction can, to rewrite the creation myth of white North America from the ground up, replacing the war-whooping Injuns and chaw-spitting cowpokes of an earlier generation of Westerns with dynamic, three-dimensional characters, both Native and white, who are capable of unimaginable cruelty but who never lose their essential humanity.
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Year in Reading alum Joshua Ferris has a new book on shelves this week, as does Millions contributor Porochista Khakpour. Also out: Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro; The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings; Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore by Walter Mosley; The Orenda by Joseph Boyden; Snow in May by Kseniya Melnik; The Year She Left Us by Kathryn Ma; and Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston. For more on these and other new titles, go read our Great 2014 Book Preview.
“Canadian writers as a whole do not trust Nature. They are always suspecting some dirty trick.” – Margaret Atwood, Survival
Susanna Moodie’s 1852 Roughing it in the Bush was less an emigrant’s guide than a cautionary tale, and much early Canadian literature wrestled with the realities of that experience. Beautiful Losers (Leonard Cohen, 1966) finally freed Canadian writers from writing about the pioneer life and the implacable menace of the wilderness, but our anxiety about it never really went away (Elle, Solomon Gursky Was Here, The Orenda, and Indian Horse, to name a few). The land continues to demand our respect and attention.
The Bear, set in the early 1990s, rehearses that anxiety in a visceral way. Five-year-old Anna and her two-year-old brother Alex (Stick), survive a bear attack that kills their parents and then face the wilds of Algonquin Park on their own. “I need you to get your brother off the island,” her mortally injured mother whispers, when Anna and Stick emerge from the safety of the cooler. “It’s not safe.” With these words, Claire Cameron reminds us how tenuous is our mastery of the natural world.
I interviewed Cameron on a morning in early March. It was still too cold for a canoe trip, so we walked through the curated wilderness of High Park in Toronto instead. There was still snow on the ground but the cold snap had finally lifted and the birds were singing.
The Millions: In her study of Canadian literature, Survival, Margaret Atwood wrote that in the books she read as a child, “The main thing was to avoid dying, and only by a mixture of cunning, experience, and narrow escapes could the animal — or the human relying on its own resources — manage that.” Five-year-old Anna narrates your novel, and part of the tension in The Bear is the reader’s awareness of the killing indifference of the Canadian wilderness: we know the kids are not all right.
Claire Cameron: The real start was in the voice. It started to whisper to me. My son was five years old at the time and nattering incessantly. At five there’s that moment when their vocabulary catches up with their inner life. In the background was my ongoing interest in bears. I’ve spent a lot of time in the wilderness. I started to write with that voice and the wilderness stuff wrapped itself around that voice. A bear came to mind. I’m so well acquainted with the attack that happened in 1991 in Algonquin Park, where I’d worked as a camp counselor the year before and the year after it happened. It was a couple who were experienced campers and it was around Thanksgiving. As far as bears go, that timing is crucial. No one else was there to witness it, but in reconstructing the scene they think it was a predatory attack, and they think the bear attacked the woman first. There are signs that the man put up a fight. It was a young male bear, which is another important point. Young males get kicked out by their mums and they don’t have their own territory. They are the ones that are more experimental and willing to take a chance.
What took me years to come to terms with was that the couple didn’t do anything wrong, and the bear was just being a bear. The summer after, I and a lot of people who worked at the camp were searching for a reason, we were hoping that the campers had done something wrong, that the campers had done something to bring this on to themselves. There wasn’t much detail available. It wasn’t until years later that I came to terms with the idea that they’d done nothing wrong. It was quite chilling.
TM: You say the bear was just being a bear, but bears don’t attack people often.
CC: No. Some people call it a rogue bear, and I use that language sometimes, just to communicate that it’s very unusual for a black bear to do that. But there are biologists who say that if a bear, especially this young male bear, has made a successful kill of a young moose calf, that a human isn’t such a leap. It’s not a matter of them having taste for human flesh. It’s that it’s October and they need to hibernate and they need calories. A lone male is going to be struggling.
TM: When Anna and Stick reach the mainland and eat some of the “dangle berries” they forage, my mind went to the recent news about the neurotoxins in the wild yam seeds that Chris McCandless (Into the Wild) ate. If an adult, equipped with guides to edible plants, couldn’t figure out what might kill him, how could children be safe? Putting your characters directly in harm’s way meant simply letting them run out of food.
CC: Because I’ve taught Outward Bound courses, which were 30 day stretches in the wilderness with young kids who didn’t have much experience, I’m acutely aware of the boundaries, which are first and foremost hydration. And adults can really only go for three days. A lot of people worry about food but that’s just a distraction.
I love the wilderness for all sorts of reasons but my fundamental reason for being out there is what you learn about the people you’re with, especially when they come under stress. That section I was very much playing with those things, seeing how they’d react and what they’d do. What their priorities would be. A child is often stomach-led. I had this instinct that they would be wanting to put something in their mouth.
TM: Did you think of them getting hold of something poisonous?
CC: My son and I go hiking enough and one of the things we’re always talking about is, “Doesn’t that look tempting to eat? But you don’t eat that.” He can drone on about how he shouldn’t eat things. It’s one of my hobby horses. My intention was that her mother had been similarly on Anna about that kind of thing. I did feel that to be realistic and not fall into a heap, Anna needed some kind of prior structure.
TM: Earle Birney coined the term “bushed” in his iconic poem by that name to describe the way the wilderness does a number on our mental health. As the weather turned and the bush became something he knew he might not survive, Richard Wagamese’s young Ojibway character (in Indian Horse) put it this way: “The land around us was like a great being hunched in the darkness.” You give fresh meaning to being bushed when Anna imagines the darkness as a flesh-eating monster. Were you consciously working from that literary tradition? It’s hard to imagine in an urban park, but have you ever been bushed yourself?
CC: I’ve been bushed lots. I was working more from an experiential tradition than a literary one, probably, though I’m very attracted to all of those writers. I’ve done a lot of time outdoors. Some of the most interesting times, in retrospect, are when you get bushed, up against the edge. It reminds you of your place in the world, how small and insignificant you are. We love to put sentiment on nature, we love to give it human emotions, but it’s really about realizing your place, and how precarious your place is.
TM: Nick Cutter (aka Craig Davidson, the worst-kept secret in Canadian literature) recently published a horror novel about young people in the wilderness, The Troop. In an interview about it, he said, “I think for the boys in my book, they keep going because, simple as it seems, it’s impossible for them to believe that they won’t survive.” This childlike trust that the universe is benign is very much a thematic concern in The Bear, too. It makes it possible for Anna to endure.
CC: I loved The Troop for that point, that the young mind is flexible and can snap back. I feel like we had that observation in common. I picked up on that in conversations with my son, when I noticed he’d be so sad about something that he’d feel that his life was over and it was all ruined and then in the next minute be laughing hysterically. I was amazed at watching that, noticing how much protection there was in that, to be able to switch and be in a moment like that. I think it is a survival tactic.
TM: Writing from the perspective of a five-year-old also means childish self-absorption. She laughs at her brother’s nakedness, notices the way her skin turns white from so much water, and worries about being in trouble with her parents. Meanwhile, she’s lost in the wilderness. Does her tunnel vision protect her from the larger terror an adult with greater knowledge of the world would feel?
CC: I think it does. That ability to be in the moment helps you keep relaxed. In a survival situation, being relaxed is one of the key things. I think it stops her from overloading with stress, which an adult might do. It’s a survival mechanism of its own.
TM: You’ve said that you were very much aware of Lord of the Flies while you were writing this book, and that you were consciously writing against it. Tell me more about that.
CC: I reread it sometime in the year before I started writing. When I’ve been working leading wilderness courses, there’s been a longstanding joke when things start to break down, everyone says, “Oh, Lord of the Flies!” So I reread it. I’d known it wasn’t exactly a kind take on human nature, but having two boys I was really struck by how it gave them no benefit of the doubt. It was quite a mean take on human nature. I saw so much kindness in my boys that I got angry that I’d let Lord of the Flies define so much. Why is that the reference point? That really frustrated me. So I started writing against that.
TM: So you said you were listening to your son’s voice, and yet you drew the character as a girl.
CC: The book was originally two boys. I was listening to my son’s voice and the character was a boy, and I had a much longer section when they were grown up and returning to the island at first. I was really struggling with that and my agent said, Well, maybe it’s a girl. I went into a three-day snit. Absolutely not! It was so foundational that I was writing against Lord of the Flies. I calmed down and I read through, and the older character was going on about popsicles and Band-Aids. I realized that she and I shared a lot of interests. I started to leave Lord of the Flies behind. Maybe that was a reason for starting, but why would that matter to the reader? I knew I’d write about a strong little girl really well.
TM: In your review of The Troop for The Globe and Mail you wrote about how the female character is always the one being eaten, and how that irritates you. Was that part of that character decision as well?
CC: It became a big part of that. Especially in wilderness and survival writing, there’s been, similar to horror, a damsel in distress role for women. My grandmother’s sister was a climber in the 1950s who was in the Kootenays (south-east British Columbia), a back-country skier, and I don’t see her story. There were quite a few Victorian rock-climbers, they went in skirts, but it’s not really established in the wilderness writing canon. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. I was so glad that Craig Davidson didn’t have anyone skinny dipping at the beginning!
TM: Releasing children to their own recognizance is a common fairy tale trope. When she was small, I’d hear my daughter announce “we were orphans” during imaginary play. Like in fairy tales, that was always the start of everything: get the parents out of the way so something interesting can happen. There are clear narrative constraints when you limit yourself to the perspective of a five-year-old, but I think there are freedoms, too. Did you ever attempt this story from the adult perspective?
CC: I didn’t, because it started with the voice. One of the first times I’ve thought clearly about this was when Mark Medley interviewed me for the National Post and he said, You have all these tools but you’ve chosen to throw them to the side and essentially tie one hand behind your back. Why would you do that? And I had no way to answer. I didn’t sit down and think, I’m going to write from the child’s perspective, I thought, I’m going to use this voice. In my first few drafts I had many more signposts for the reader, days of the week, some articles, a section from the rescuer’s perspective. I was not confident in my ability to pull it off. As I got more into the voice and attuned to what I was doing, I started to strip that back and the last step was taking it all out. I thought, Ok, I think I can stand up. I had to be brave.
It was incredibly freeing. I stopped worrying so much while I was writing, and I stopped using that analytical part of my brain and I let it go back to this instinctual brain. When I was writing Anna’s voice I let myself write fast and I didn’t read back. I just let it rip.
TM: Your bear is very different from Marian Engel’s bear, but both animals seem to stand in for our relationship with the natural world. We understand it as benevolent as well as destructive; we love it and we fear it. Has the writing of this novel changed your relationship with wilderness?
CC: The review in People magazine said something like, “This could do for camping what Jaws did for beaches.” I thought, Oh, good lord! I actually loved the novel Jaws and I’d been reading about how Peter Benchley has such great regret about what he did to great white sharks. They weren’t understood when he wrote that, and the novel portrays them as killing machines. If you read the blurb about my book, and you don’t actually read the book, there is potential for harm. It’s made me realize the extent of my conflict. Of course when I go outdoors I’m very conscious of them and I’m scared of them in a way, but all of my experiences say that I don’t need to be. I think that part of writing this book was trying to reconcile those two things.
Joseph Boyden. If you are an American, this may be the first time you have heard this Canadian writer’s name. It will almost certainly not be the last. Boyden, who is part Ojibwa Indian, published his third novel The Orenda in Canada in September, and it has been a runaway bestseller here ever since. For reasons known only to his American publisher, the book will not come out until May in the U.S., but we live in a wired world so you can simply order the book from Amazon.ca or Amazon.uk, where the book became available in November.
The Orenda — the title refers to the Indian word for “soul” or “life force” — uses fiction to retell the foundation myth of Canada, and, by extension, all of North America, putting Native people back at the center of the story where they belong. The novel, set in the mid-1600s during the French conquest of what is now Ontario, Canada, is told by three rotating narrators: a proud and violent Huron warrior named Bird, a young Iroquois girl named Snow Falls whom Bird adopts as his own after slaughtering her family, and a devout French Jesuit priest named Christophe who is based on the historical figure St. Jean de Brebéuf.
I have written about The Orenda before for The Millions, and I will almost certainly do so again when the book has its American release in May. I apologize in advance for repeating myself, but in a literary culture beset by endless hype, logrolling, and backscratching, it is rare to find the genuine article: a truly necessary book. The Orenda sheds new light on the dark crime at the heart of all North American history, but more important than that, it renders the ostensible victims of that crime, the Indians, as complex, fully realized human beings.
Every day while I was reading an advance copy of The Orenda this summer, I drove past a billboard advertising The Lone Ranger, which showed Johnny Depp in war paint with a dead crow inexplicably plopped on top of his head. That’s why Boyden’s work is necessary. We all know Depp’s Tonto is a travesty, and the movie justifiably tanked at the box office, but we don’t as a culture seem to know what to put in the place of that war-whooping savage that filled the screen of the million-and-one Westerns we all watched on TV as kids. In The Orenda, Joseph Boyden is quietly, brilliantly showing us the way.
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A quarter century ago, when Canadian author Brian Fawcett wrote Public Eye: An Investigation Into the Disappearance of the World, much of the novel was set in Fawcett’s hometown of Prince George, British Columbia, a remote working-class city 300 miles north of Vancouver. But when he sold the book to an American publisher, the editors insisted he change the setting to Akron, Ohio, which would be more familiar to American readers. He did and the book was published by Grove Press in 1990.
Fawcett’s tale, told with considerable good humor from the stage at panel discussion at the Vancouver International Writers Festival last week, helps explain what Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize means to Canadian writers, especially older ones who remember the cold shoulder that Canadian authors writing about Canada sometimes received from American publishers and readers. For many Canadians, Munro’s Nobel — the first for a Canadian writer if one doesn’t count Saul Bellow, who was born in Canada but moved to the U.S. when he was nine — is a sign that the world is finally catching on to the quality of Canadian literature, which has long labored under the shadow of the cultural hegemon to the south.
“Canada has been producing fine writing by a number of very fine writers, many of whom have achieved international recognition, whether it’s Yann Martel or Michael Ondaatje or Anne Michaels, for quite some time,” says Hal Wake, who runs the week-long Vancouver Writers Festival, which wrapped up on Sunday. “In my view, there have been a number of Canadian writers along the way who might have been considered before.”
“I see it more as just, ‘We were due,’” he adds with a laugh.
Munro, who began publishing in the 1960s, was among the first wave of Canadian writers to find a wide audience for stories about Canada both within and outside the country. But half a century later, as the nation has grown both economically and culturally, Canadian literature has matured to a degree that it is no longer possible to point to any one particular “Canadian literature.” This is partly because homegrown Canadian publishing firms, while facing the same systemic problems as their American counterparts, have grown more robust and adventurous in the last 50 years. But Canadian literature has grown and changed mostly because Canada itself has grown and changed. The Canada Alice Munro grew up in, largely rural and agrarian, and, outside Francophone Quebec, mostly of Scottish and English ancestry, has given way to a polyglot nation of immigrants with thriving metropolitan hubs in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.
Twenty years ago, when I first started visiting Vancouver, I used to call Canada “the whitest place on Earth.” But when I moved to Vancouver with my Canadian wife last year, I was startled to find that our son’s kindergarten class in the local elementary school was in some ways more ethnically diverse than his class at P.S. 8 in Brooklyn, where we had been living. Children’s birthday parties here are a miniature United Nations of Scots, Irish, British, French, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Serbs, Poles, New Zealand Maori, along with several children of First Nations tribal ancestry, and many, many children whose parentage is some mixture of the above.
So for Americans who have plowed through Munro’s Selected Stories and are looking for a broader taste of Canadian literature — or CanLit, as it is called here — I offer a partial and admittedly idiosyncratic “Beginner’s Guide to Canadian Literature.” To avoid stating the obvious, I will skip some of the more famous living writers, like Martell, Ondaatje, and Margaret Atwood, whose work is already well known outside Canada. Institutional modesty also prevents me from touting my talented Millions colleague, Emily St. John Mandel, a native of British Columbia (though I will not refrain from mentioning that her most recent book is The Lola Quartet and that she has a new book, Station Eleven, due out from Knopf in 2015).
I cannot pretend to be an authority on the eternally fraught subject of CanLit, having only lived in the country a year, so readers should feel free to chime in with other Canadian faves in the comments section.
Joseph Boyden: Let me put this as bluntly and unequivocally as I can: It is a crime that Boyden’s work is not better known outside Canada, especially in the United States. With his latest novel, The Orenda, he has set himself the breathtakingly audacious task of rewriting the creation story of Canada to put Native people, in this case the Huron and Iroquois Indians, at the center of the story where they belong. This alone would make it worth a look, but the novel also happens to be a terrific read, if not always an easy one. Set in the mid-1600s, The Orenda recounts the blood-soaked history of the early French exploration into what is today the Canadian province of Ontario through the eyes of three central characters: a brave Huron warrior, a young Iroquois girl he has adopted after killing her family, and French Jesuit missionary come to bring the heathen Natives to Christ.
The novel is 500 pages long and contains some of the most vicious scenes of violence I have ever read, but Boyden has a fascinating story to tell and he tells it with extraordinary delicacy and even-handedness. It would have been easy, and perhaps understandable, for Boyden, who is part Ojibwa Indian, to have made Christophe, his Jesuit missionary, who is based on a historical figure, St. Jean de Brébeuf, into the bad guy. In the book, Christophe and his fellow Frenchmen lay waste to a rich and complex Native society, but by telling so much of the story through Christophe’s eyes, Boyden renders the priest’s actions both comprehensible and in some ways even noble, despite the destruction he wreaks on the very people whose souls he is trying to save.
The Orenda has been out since September in Canada, where it is already a #1 bestseller, but won’t be available in the U.S. until May 2014. No matter. It’s worth a trip to Amazon.ca to buy it now. Boyden, who is just 47, plans to write a companion novel to The Orenda, as well as a final novel to complete a trilogy he started with his first two novels, Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce. Many things could stop him. He could run out of gas. He could get spooked by the magnitude of his own talent and ambition. But if he does not, if he is able to carry out the work he has cut out for himself, I think I already know who will be Canada’s next Nobel laureate.
Mavis Gallant: Think of Gallant as the Francophone Alice Munro. Born in Montreal in 1922 — she is, incredibly, now 91 — Gallant worked as a newspaper reporter in the 1940s before leaving journalism to become a fiction writer in Paris, where she has lived most of her adult life. As with Munro, many of Gallant’s stories first appeared in The New Yorker, and like Munro, Gallant has a gift for capturing the inner lives of young, spirited women raised in provincial, cloistered worlds.
Gallant wrote two novels, but she is best known for her short fiction, the best of which can found in her doorstop-sized Selected Stories. Her fiction can be decorous to a fault, but when she is on, there is no one smarter or more observant about the human heart. I have never forgotten the first story of hers I ever read, “Across the Bridge,” published in The New Yorker in 1991, about a young French girl engaged by her parents to the son of a business partner who rebels by becoming infatuated with another boy. The world of the story is petty and narrow, and the stakes tiny, but in her quiet way Gallant makes you feel as if the future of love itself hung in the balance.
Alistair MacLeod: Now 77, MacLeod is best known for his short stories collected in Island, most of which are set on the remote Cape Breton Island of Nova Scotia off Canada’s east coast, where MacLeod spent much of his early life. Seven years younger than Munro, he is, like her, of primarily Scottish ancestry, and the world of his stories, like that of some of her early work, is provincial, economically straitened, and emotionally austere. But unlike Munro, who grew up in Ontario near placid Lake Huron, MacLeod is haunted by the sea, and in the best of his stories, like “The Boat,” the first of the stories collected in Island, the sea is almost a character in the story.
MacLeod’s stories tend toward the bleak, and after a while one begins to hanker for some coloring beyond shades of gray. For this reason, Island, for all its mentions of the sea, is anything but a beach read. I recall finishing the collection with two central conclusions: first, that MacLeod is a marvelous craftsman of short stories, and, second, that I was very, very glad I wasn’t raised the child of fishermen on Cape Breton in the 1940s. Together, these two thoughts spurred me to rush out and buy MacLeod’s acclaimed 1999 novel, No Great Mischief, but not so far to actually read it.
Robertson Davies: For those who prefer their slices of small-town Canadian life a bit less brooding, there’s Robertson Davies, that white-bearded font of plays, critical essays, reportage, and fiction, including his three trilogies, The Salterton Trilogy, The Deptford Trilogy, and The Cornish Trilogy. His best-known book is probably The Fifth Business, the first installment of The Deptford Trilogy, a busy tale told in the form of a long letter by its central character, retiring teacher Dunstan Ramsay, who lays out the story of his life as a World War I soldier, teacher, and lifelong frenemy of businessman Percy Boyd (“Boy”) Staunton.
Davies, who died in 1995 at age 82, was an actor and the editor of a small-town newspaper before his writing brought him to prominence, and some of his best work, like his early novels Tempest-Tost and Leaven of Malice, touch on the worlds of amateur theater troupes and newspapers.
Esi Edugyan: Even as Canada’s population becomes less Anglo-Saxon and pale, it is still rare to see black people — or Hispanics, for that matter — in most Canadian cities, so it was with deep curiosity that I recently picked up Half-Blood Blues, by Edugyun, a child of Ghanaian immigrant parents born and raised in the central Canadian city of Calgary. A detective story of sorts, Half-Blood Blues centers on the disappearance of Hieronymous Falk, a brilliant jazz trumpeter born to a white German mother and a black African soldier, who is arrested by the Nazis in occupied Paris.
Narrated by one of Hiero’s fellow musicians who sets out 50 years later to learn what happened to his friend, much of the book is written in an odd slangy patois, and like a lot of novels written in slang, it can take some getting used to. But once Edugyun immerses you in the world of these black jazz musicians living amid the intrigue and dangers of wartime Europe, your ear adjusts to the dialect and you succumb to the pleasures of a tale well told.