THE PERILS OF GOING BACK IN TIME
Rain Before Morning, the polite and wellconstructed debut novel from David Suzuki’s videog rapher, is a worthy effort, as you might expect. As you might fear, it’s also a bit dull.
It’s a homefront-and-trenches tale of British Columbia’s tumultuous Great War. At its best, it’s as absorbing as a decent Nature of Things episode. (Poole, who is 70, has directed a number of them in his time.) But as a novel, it’s a lump of porridge. The conventions of the modern enviro-documentary — earnestness, lecture disguised as narrative, a certain tone of brow-furrowing — are unsuited to good fiction.
“I tell you,” one character harrumphs, “… this war has driven a wedge right through the heart of the community.” This is supposed to be the passionate utterance of a hard-bitten small-town fisherman, circa 1917.
Retrofitted 21st-century notions are a poor fit for Edwardian characters in good historical f iction, too. But Poole takes Leah and Nathan, his star-crossed rural-B.C. lovers of 1911, and puts them on an up-to-date, good-foryou diet of environmentalism, pacifism and feminism.
“Orchids … look too much like female genitalia. Don’t you agree, Nathan?” a consumptive bohemian lady painter in the pioneer town of Silva Landing asks our teen hero early on. Nathan’s blushing response to this sally isn’t anachronistic, but the lady’s sprightly vagina monologue sure is. The glaring modernity of their politics and dialects aside, Poole’s characters often sound like constituency newsletters.
Given Poole’s previous weed-farming success (at the end of his charming 1998 memoir, Romancing Mary Jane: A Year in the Life of a Failed Marijuana Grower, he was unmurdered and unimprisoned), it seems odd he should have a wooden ear for human talk. At one point, one character asks another, “Surely you’d concede that there is a spirit of militarism here that endangers all nations?”
It’s regrettable. All the ingredients of a good historical novel — thwarted love, vast social change, wildernesses yet untamed — are present in Rain Before Morning. As a plotter, Poole is never less than professional and cooks everything up in the right order here.
After a wilderness idyll up the Inside Passage, his adolescent meant-to-be lovers are forcibly separated in the first third of the book.
In the second, poor-but-principled Nathan labours heroically through the mythic age of Canadian lumbering while Leah nurses the Dominion’s dying and mutilated in France.
Their third-act reunion segues into a tale of deserters and socialists reminiscent of the Ginger Goodwin legend and is appropriately tragedy-haunted.
The novel’s best parts depict the deathdefying, back-breaking world of old-time lumberjacks. The fervent good writing Poole brings to this realm of high riggers, gyppo shows and icy booms shows he has a romantic attachment to it.
This is common among B.C. writers, even those with a conservationist bent. Reconciling logging’s brutal drama with the urge to keep wilderness wild is a crucial tension in our province’s literature, but Poole isn’t the writer to square that circle. When his narrative strays from tree-cutting, it feels pious and medicinal.
To be clear, it’s not Rain Before Morning’s un-Edwardian politics, as such, that sabotage it. Fine writers like Anne-Marie MacDonald and David Adams Richards can encode quite contemporary concerns into their powerful historical novels.
But “encode” is the operative word. Sadly, the ideas and conversations in Rain Before Morning are more like text from a political pamphlet: expected, obvious, forgettable, unnecessary to read.
Vancouver poet Lyle Neff last wrote about David Lee’s Chainsaws: A History.