Issue # 186 - Laura Rock

Laura Rock


The Justice of the Land



Smoke River by Krista Foss (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2014, 341 pp., $19.95).


It’s easy to get lost in the swirling eddies of Smoke River, Krista Foss’s debut novel. And I mean lost in the best sense of the word, drawn into the immersive pleasures of a complex and assured narrative. This is a book that foregoes easy resolutions to intractable conflicts, whether they be personal or political, etched on bodies or land.

     Smoke River follows an array of characters through a summer-long dispute over a piece of property. The land in question, wedged between a First Nation reserve and a tobacco farm, is slated for an upscale subdivision and golf course. A sign markets the built-out vision of instant community: 80% pre-sold, it lies. The soil has been scraped by bulldozers and pierced by survey stakes. A hydro tower has been erected. For real estate developers Mitch and Ella Bain, as well as for the mayor and townspeople, the project signifies hope for a future veering away from tobacco, yesterday’s crop. It means progress and prosperity. But others remember what was there before: sedge meadows, a pond full of frogs, berries ripe for picking. Many of the reserve’s residents have intimate histories with this landscape, which they’ve never ceded. Shayna Fallingbrook, the Mohawk lawyer who has returned from the city, muses: “Her people called the place simply o’tá:ra, their word for clay as well as clan, for everything that was land and family and how who you were and where you lived were indivisible.”

      Shayna organizes a blockade, which grows into a prolonged encampment. Barricades across the highway cut off nearby businesses, sparking retaliation from angry merchants and drawing possibly armed Warriors from beyond the reserve. Young hotheads Las and Gordo, prominent sons of the town, threaten violence against the protesters and enact it on each other. The police, band council, and provincial government squabble over what to do, as cigarette manufacturer Elijah Barton seeks to influence negotiations toward his own undeclared ends. Back-channel offers are made, illuminating potential settlements and not a few conflicts of interest. The government might be persuaded to spread cash around to smother the flames. The silence of a badly hurt girl might be purchased, obscuring the crime against her. Seek justice or take the money? Principles or pragmatism? The choice runs through the novel.

     Intertwined with the question of which side will win are the fates of the people involved. A plot that might have been rendered bloodless, merely a political contest, gains dramatic heft because of its human toll. The threat to their reputation and solvency sends the Bain family, already a shaky emotional enterprise, into full-on crisis. Although Ella and Mitch seem to care only about appearances — presentation over substance — both bear scars that manifest in their different styles of parenting, and their obsessions with, respectively, control-freaking and drinking. Las, an overindulged star athlete, embodies his mother’s thwarted ambitions, while his sister Stephanie remains unseen by her parents until she commands their attention — for starters, by falling in love with “one of those wild kids from the blockade,” as the mayor tells Ella in a bout of maternal score-settling. Shayna, carrying her own losses, attempts to shield her runaway niece, the aspiring singer, Cherisse. Tobacco farmer Coulson Stercyx continues his parents’ lifelong fight to wrest a salable crop from the ground. As their relationship takes root in the shadow of the barricade, Shayna and Coulson become a symbol of both unity and division.  

     Foss has created characters who are rounded and flawed — people with their own motivations, memories, vices and voices — and endows them with a humanity that makes even those who do hateful things seem understandable, perhaps redeemable in the long run. The secondary characters also come to life in her hands. In a book with so many characters, it is essential that they be memorable or readers will become confused. That Foss has accomplished this while also linking them through recurring images is a major accomplishment. Events, places and ideas echo across generations, but the characters themselves remain distinct.

     Throughout the novel, Foss weaves intricate patterns. There are many examples. Cross-cultural couples defy community norms and then face consequences, or their children do, such as when Elijah’s mother loses her right to live on the reserve. Shayna’s mother survived the degradations of residential school only to visit similar humiliations on her older daughter. Las is a champion swimmer with a university athletic scholarship awaiting him; as a young man, Coulson earned his way out of town on a swim scholarship. Mitch once taunted his high school classmate Elijah, marked as a dunce, but now Elijah takes revenge by flaunting his wealth. When he was a boy, Elijah’s mother told him: “You need to know who you are”; in the present day, Shayna sees her niece running across a field and thinks: “That one has no idea who she is.” Shayna rifles Coulson’s wallet, foreshadowing a critical scene with Cherisse and a wallet. The occupation of the development reminds Ella (somewhat absurdly) of her husband’s takeover of a room in their home, a domestic act of colonialism. Images of ice and glass, tobacco, and peach pies baked for comfort appear repeatedly as Foss mines the multiple meanings attached to them.   

     The reverberations also serve to reinforce the confining small-town setting, which Foss nails. Doreville — a radio broadcaster mistakenly refers to it as Dotville, and the local teenagers call it Dorkville — is located in an area known as the Interlake, a silted delta perfect for growing tobacco. It’s the type of place where slights and grievances accumulate like layers of sediment. A wrongful death in one generation might be paid for, or repeated, in the next. Sons inherit their fathers’ weaknesses, and everyone can see the through-line. But Doreville wants and needs change — hence the housing development to attract newcomers, and the sputtering campaigns to convince sunburned, tobacco-stained farmers to try growing baby cabbage and ginseng. With the blockade, it becomes evident that Doreville’s future is just as contested as the disputed land. Ella thinks: “You can change the history of a place with the right packaging,” but events overthrow that notion. Elijah realizes that land is a constant “with its own kind of justice, its own understanding” regardless of who owns it, but his idea isn’t widely accepted. This is a novel that asks: what is progress? And who gets to decide?

     Almost every chapter of Smoke River is divided into scenes told from a different character’s perspective, allowing the reader to see the mounting conflict from all angles. While the point of view rotates, the beginning of a new scene often picks up on dialogue or action from the one preceding it, so transitions are smooth. Because the scenes are vivid and the writing economical, this structure has the effect of moving the story swiftly along its course. Variations in the number of scenes and the characters featured keep the chapters from feeling formulaic. And the pacing matches the storyline. A pivotal chapter follows just one character in an extended, moving scene. As the climax nears, the pace picks up, with the narration cutting from character to character in short, tense bursts.

     What is irksome in a novel likely varies from reader to reader. Only a few elements of Smoke River, for me, didn’t work. First, a decision to render all thoughts and past dialogue in italics. This is unnecessary, as the context makes it clear that a character is either thinking or remembering a conversation. In many cases, “he thinks” or “she thinks” is also used, so I found the italics to be too much stage managing, as if the reader can’t be trusted to figure out what’s going on.

     Another quibble: there’s a scene in which Ella fills out her son’s university application for him, writing “Economics” with a ballpoint pen on the paper form. Although the precise time of the novel is never specified, it is clearly contemporary, with its text-messaging and characters who think that someone’s comment is heteronormative (Stephanie) or yell “Holla!” (Cherisse). So this form-filling was a small detail that didn’t ring true. Anyone who has dealt with a university in the past decade will attest to the fact that applicants no longer have a paper option — it’s all data entry and uploads.

     Finally, a single adjective made me close the book for a moment: inscrutable, applied to Shayna by Coulson. He notes “her inscrutable face,” which leaves him unsure about her feelings for him. That this word carries the taint of longstanding stereotype makes its use unfortunate at best. While it could be interpreted as true to Coulson’s point of view in that moment — he really doesn’t get Shayna — it also undermines the otherwise successful characterization of Coulson as someone who is fair and open in his dealings with people, including the migrant workers on his farm. But let’s be clear: this is one poor word choice at odds with a masterfully constructed whole. There is much to admire in Smoke River.

     Looming over the novel is the memory of Caledonia, and Oka before that, and now the ghosts of Tina Fontaine and far too many like her — the missing and murdered indigenous women of our country. For anyone familiar with this background, Smoke River will evoke flashes of recognition and sorrow, and perhaps a desire to compare notes with media reports. It’s not necessary, however, to have that base of knowledge in order to engage the novel, which shines its own beacon of truth, universalizing facts and giving them a narrative shape that real life rarely provides.    

     Smoke River could have been an issues book, either didactic or bound by politics — however compelling and timely. Instead, Foss has created something much larger in scale, a multi-faceted tale that glints and sparkles like the broken glass covering Cherisse as she floats down the river, letting it carry her where it will.