The Spawning Grounds / Gail Anderson-Dargatz
Toronto: Knopf, c2016.
This new novel by Gail Anderson-Dargatz was well worth waiting for. I just raced through it in two days.
On the face of it, it's an uncomplicated, quick read with lots of drama, all about a family who has lived in the Thompson-Shuswap region of British Columbia, along the shores of the Lightning River, since the gold rush of 1860 -- and across the river from Shuswap territory.
It's about the salmon in the river, and the careless behaviour of farmers, ranchers, settlers, all those who've added to the increased silting, decreased water flow, and resultant decrease in the ability of salmon to return to their spawning grounds.
It's about one family, the Robertsons, and the difficult love between parents and siblings, as well as their varied romantic entanglements.
It's about the history and the present situation of the Shuswap in the face of more development on their land, and their relationship with those who settled there in the past.
And it's about the river mystery, a spirit who has caused much tragedy and uproar over the years in its singleminded focus on its own purposes - even to the point of suicide by those whom it has inhabited.
So as you read and reflect, it doesn't seem so uncomplicated after all. The surface of the story is deceptively calm, like the Lightning River, but the story holds a deep mystery as well. Hannah and Brandon Robertson are the latest generation to live at the family homestead; Brandon in high school and Hannah in university. But their childhood friend from across the river, Alex, is now turning into more than a friend for Hannah, and is instrumental in the action that flows from Brandon's encounter with the river mystery.
Anderson-Dargatz has woven together environmental concerns about the river and salmon levels, which Hannah is heavily involved in trying to measure and fix, with the spiritual and myth-based explanations that Alex brings forward from Shuswap tradition. She holds the tension between the two belief systems and makes them equally important to the narrative. The Robertson's family story is entangled with the stories of the river, and only Alex's storytelling can make sense of it.
It's a great read, and perfect for this time of year, with its tales of the spirit world and the dark and stormy nights that the spirit brings on while Hannah and Alex fight to rescue Brandon and save their communities. Really interesting read, and one with a very strong sense of place.