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!
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