Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Something to read.

When I moved into my house, I managed to snag a whole bunch of books that my parents used to have around our house when I was a kid. And slowly but surely, I have been making my way through those books one at a time (well, sometimes two or three at a time). I have been slowly reading a collection of essays by Pierre Trudeau called Federalism and the French Canadians. It's all about economic issues and social issues and Quebec seperatism. It's awfully dry and boring, and I can't read more than one essay at once without putting it down and grabbing another book. So as I paused in my reading to pick up something else, I grabbed W.O. Mitchell's Vanishing Point. No relation to the movie of the same name (which was also excellent), or to the Primal Scream album of the same name (a great album - but based on the movie).

It's a major, complex book about life on a native reserve in Paradise, in the Alberta foothills, in the late 50s or early 60s. It follows the lives of several people, most notably Carlyle Sinclair, a teacher at the reserve who quickly becomes mor than just a teacher - he is the main link between the natives on the reserve and the beaurocracy that is connected to Ottawa. When we first meet him, he is riding with a native man named Archie Nicotine on his way to meet a girl in the city. The girl is Victoria, his star pupil, who is now working at the hospital as a nurse's assistant. But when he gets there, he discovers she's missing. The second part of the book is the back story of Carlyle Sinclair and the Stonys who populate the reserve. Archie Nicotine, who in the first section initially appears to be an obnoxious lowlife drunken barroom philosopher, becomes a central character, one with a real wisdom and moral compass. And the third section deals with the search for the missing girl, where Archie and Carlyle both show their true colours in the end. (Some for the good, some for the bad.)

The characters in the book are incredible and vivid. The irritating televangelist Heally Richards, who "heals" people on live television. (And who may, or may not, actually believe that he is capable of doing so.) The rotten lowlife Norman Catface, who pimps his sister in the big city. The old man on the reserve, Esau, who is dying of tuberculosis. Fyfe, a government official who has good intentions but is sometimes impractical. He has created a cookie to improve the health of those living on the reserve, the Fyfe Minimal Subsistence Biscuit, which is virtually inedible and goes uneaten. There is humour and pathos on every page, and the delicate balance between the natives and the whites brings out the best and the worst in both. As old Esau is brought to Heally Richards' Rally For Jesus tent in hopes of being cured, the book ends with a definite transition point for both whites and natives.

This has got to be one of the definitive novels about this culture, and one of the classics of Canadian literature. I must confess, this is the first W.O. Mitchell book I've read, and I haven't even picked up Who Has Seen The Wind, which most would consider to be his best work, from what I understand. I will pick that up soon - until then, this is just a suggestion that Canadians might like to take a look at The Vanishing Point. It's terrific.

1 comment:

  1. I have a copy of that Trudeau book. It was originally my dad's. You're right it is verrrrrry dry & boring. But I started highlighting passages that still ring true today.

    Yet I am a quarter through the book after starting it over 2 years ago.

    That being said it's helluva lot better than listening to Ken Dryden speak ;)