Saturday, November 24, 2007


Yellowknife / Steve Zipp
Res Telluris, c2007.

I read this for the Canadian Book Challenge, after being kindly offered a copy from the author for the purpose. Steve Zipp is an author and a blogger who is participating in the Canadian Reading Challenge as well.

The setting is Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories, on the eve of Y2K. Yellowknife draws in a variety of odd characters who survive on the edges, and each one has a story to tell. It begins with Danny, a drifter who finds his way to Yellowknife, ends up on the streets, and then lucks into a trailer-sitting job. As the book opens, Danny has just crossed the border into the NWT. He stops at a tourist information booth for directions:

She handed him a map, which he accepted gratefully, not having set eyes on one for days. His expression changed when he went outside and spread it on the hood of his car. There was an awful lot of empty space -- just lake, forest, and tundra, overlain by three or four roads and the migration routes of mosquitos. No wonder it was free. The cover said Official Explorer's Map. Probably you were expected to fill it in yourself.
For some reason, this struck me as hilarious, and I relaxed into enjoying the crazy antics of Danny and the other characters who are introduced quickly. There's Freddy, who Danny at first mistakes for another street person; there are the scientists working for the government at the Carboniferous Building - Drs. Peck, Smolt, Vomer, Ungle, and Nora Lobachevski, who plays the largest part in the story. As the Dept. of Wildlife is "re-organized", their offices get crammed into the basement of the building, Nora's desk fitting into the mouth of a tunnel which appears when the wall crumbles. She ends up living in her office as well, and one night explores the tunnel in her pj's. She meets an underground dentist (named what else but Cavity) and then wanders lost in the tunnels until she finally discovers a way out, which deposits her on main street so that she rushes home through the early morning streets in her bathrobe. Quite an image! There are countless other characters introduced, and countless subplots and shenanigans. You'll have to read it to get the full effect. I do think that giving the book the title "Yellowknife" is perfect, because it's the city and the landscape that are the true stars of this story; the characters just appear and make their slight way through this great constant.

Alongside all the human foibles being highlighted, Steve Zipp also manages to bring out some more serious issues. The effects of corporate and tourist incursions upon natural resources -- ie: fish stocks, gold, diamonds -- is discussed quite naturally, but it is illuminating. He comments on these in a manner which fits in to the story perfectly, not reading like a soapbox speech. For example, as Nora is stumbling into her old mine tunnel, she remarks to herself that

She'd been so consumed by the evils of diamond mining that she'd forgotten about gold, about the underworld that existed beneath her very feet... Back in the 50s, two children had died from eating snow laced with arsenic, a by-product of the gold refining process. Today a quarter-million tonnes of arsenic trioxide were stored somewhere in Giant's underground maze. It was a classic tradeoff, poison for precious metal. What would happen when the mine ceased production, the pumps stopped, the tunnels allowed to flood? How long would it take for the drums to rust through and the arsenic to leak out? There was enough to poison all of Great Slave Lake.

My only reservation with this book was that many of the characters disappeared from the narrative quite rapidly and unexpectedly. I'd have liked the various lives to have meshed more thoroughly and their futures to have been suggested more explicitly. Otherwise, I really enjoyed this read. It was a pleasure to read a book set in the North that was fun and satirical and which used its setting to such great advantage. I appreciate Steve offering us a copy of his book, which I don't imagine I could have easily stumbled across on my own. Thanks, Steve, for making my 'trip' to the Territories so entertaining!

Other Reviews by:

Gautami Tripathy


  1. You're brave to be reviewing it! I haven't read it yet and I'm reluctant, seeing as Steve will almost certainly be reading our reviews. I'm afraid I may not like it and then end up offending the guy (who was afterall nice enough to not only join the challenge, but to donate copies as well). Fortunately, you appeared to enjoy it (and your one small issue sounds pretty constructive).

    As for Yellowknife as a setting, it adds to my interest seeing as I not only just got back from a trip there, in all likelihood I'll also be moving there next year sometime.

  2. I'm reading this book as well - but a bit slower than you. LOL.

  3. Isn't it frustrating when some of the most minor characters are interesting to you but they're just not important in the book? I felt that way about Aurelius in The Thirteenth Tale. Have you read that?

  4. John - It was nice of Steve to give us copies, although it meant I was rather afraid to read it for the very reasons you mention! But I'm glad I ended up finding it a fun read.
    Are you moving to YK because of your work with the Literacy Council? It must be a long way to go for meetings right now.

    Historia - I'm sure you'll make your way to the end sometime, in between your other Challenge reads!

    Dewey - I know, I felt like yelling, "Wait, come back!" at one of my favourite characters.
    I haven't read The Thirteenth Tale; when it was so popular at first I couldn't get my hands on the library copy and it has been buried by all the new additions to my tbr list. I'll have to make my way back (I have great plans for a Christmas reading blitz...)

  5. I'm so glad to read your review and see you liked it. I'll be reading it in December and was hoping someone would post a review before then.

  6. Melanie: No, the literacy council stuff is volunteer. And yes, it seemed like a far jaunt for a meeting, but to those members who lived in Cambridge Bay it was actually more of a convenient location than you'd expect, even though it meant a Nunavut Literacy Council meeting not actually being in Nunavut! We have a list of reasons why we picked Yellowknife to live, but the primary reason is French immersion for our kids without leaving the North (where we're happy). As of right now it's not offered in Iqaluit (or anywhere else in Nunavut). We do have a Francophone school here, but it's for children with one or more Francophone parents (or they lose their funding from Heritage Canada).

  7. I just got my copy in the mail. Thanks Steve if you read this. I'm looking forward to it, but I'm glad you reviewed it first:)

  8. Hi Melanie, I just finished reading your review and want to thank you for your generous comments. I'm particularly delighted that you found some fun and humour in the book.

    But my main reason for posting is to address a concern that has been mentioned here.

    Please, fellow bloggers, don't be nervous or intimidated. You must remember that I offered my book to you out of self-interest, hoping that positive reviews would encourage sales. But I am also a realist and know that Yellowknife will not be to everyone's taste.

    Indeed, if there is something you don't like about the book, you'd be doing me a favour by mentioning it. There are two reasons for this. First, if the publisher ever decides to reprint, I may be able to make some changes. (I've already started a list.) Secondly, I hope to learn from any mistakes, especially since another novel is taking shape in my mind.

    So, John and Nicola and Historia and Bookgal, be at ease. You can't offend me -- especially after kindly inviting my book into your homes.

    Thank you all.

  9. Steve - Thanks for visiting. I'm sure you've put many people's fears to rest.

    John - I never knew that you could attend French immersion in the NWT. Good plan, I wish I'd learned early; my French (after 11 yrs in Quebec) is still rudimentary. Sigh.

  10. I loved this book. It is a fun book. I was totally engrossed!

    I have linked your review with my review!

  11. Hi Melanie, I liked this book too, but it was so difficult to write about. I was really glad to see that everyone else who reviewed it seemed to find it just as hard.


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