Slow burn

Bril­liant de­but novel mir­rors Cale­do­nia stand­off

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Nick Martin

THERE is an ex­tra­or­di­nary mo­ment in Smoke River in which an el­der, cho­sen to speak for her com­mu­nity, tries to ex­plain the on­go­ing de­struc­tion of a civ­i­liza­tion and the mean­ing of sa­cred land. The land in ques­tion was to be a new sub­di­vi­sion, un­til two Mo­hawk women set up a block­ade to stop the bull­doz­ers. The govern­ment ne­go­tia­tor isn’t lis­ten­ing to the el­der. She’s a for­mer cab­i­net min­is­ter who’s been given a $3,000-a-day sinecure to clean up this mess, and cares only about how much money the band coun­cil wants to cut a deal. She’s too busy talk­ing on her cell­phone and de­mand­ing her en­tourage find her a glass of juice to pay the el­der any at­ten­tion or re­spect. People do a lot of talk­ing and not very much lis­ten­ing in Smoke River, the out­stand­ing first novel by for­mer jour­nal­ist Krista Foss. Given that Foss lives in Hamil­ton, Ont., read­ers can spec­u­late Smoke River is based in part on the stand­off in Cale­do­nia a few years ago. The word “On­tario” never ap­pears in the book, though the people and the land could be any­where near Lake Erie, around the tobacco fields of Till­son­burg, Delhi and Sim­coe — once-thriv­ing, now-de­pressed ar­eas in which na­tive re­serves and white towns live in un­easy co­ex­is­tence. The char­ac­ters here are the most col­lec­tively joy­less bunch this side of the hu­man sur­vivors in The Walk­ing Dead. Not that their lives ever con­tained very much joy, and the block­ade makes real the sep­a­ra­tion that’s al­ways been lurk­ing there. Foss may have had her fin­gers crossed that read­ers would ig­nore just how un­likely it is that a de­vel­oper liv­ing next to a re­serve would try to build a sub­di­vi­sion on dis­puted land. The block­ade is just sud­denly there — no buildup, no sus­pense. One minute the bull­doz­ers and crews are head­ing for an­other day of work, then the next minute two Mo­hawk women are sit­ting in lawn chairs, block­ing the ac­cess road. Smoke River could have been trite, it could have been by-the-num­bers, there could have been overt mes­sages of sys­temic racism fig­u­ra­tively bash­ing read­ers over their heads, or it could have been full of car­i­ca­tures leading up to the in­evitable vi­o­lence, on which lesser writ­ers would rely. There are fa­mil­iar fig­ures on the three sides: on the re­serve, in the town, as well as those who try to strad­dle the soli­tudes. But Foss has made them into real people with com­pelling sto­ries. There’s Shayna, the young Mo­hawk lawyer with a tragic past who has re­turned to the re­serve and is in love with Coul­son, the white tobacco farmer try­ing to make a go of it in a world of non-smok­ers. There’s the typ­i­cal small­com­mu­nity mon­eyed class: on the one side is Eli­jah, who needs the town­ies to buy from him; and on the other, Ella and Mitch, who have sunk ev­ery­thing into the sub­di­vi­sion and for whom ap­pear­ances mat­ter more than their kids or their mar­riage. Their son Las is a typ­i­cal small-town high school crown prince, head­ing in­evitably for big trou­ble. Cherisse is the na­tive girl run­ning a tobacco stand who just wants to get away. An over-her-head mayor, elders, cops, ex-lovers, politi­cos, lawyers, ban­dana-ed mil­i­tants, shaven­headed red­necks in honky-tonks and pick­ups, and more than one Romeo-and-Juliet en­tan­gle­ment — ev­ery one of them is real and fleshed-out in Smoke River, none feel­ing false or man­u­fac­tured. Free Press ed­u­ca­tion re­porter Nick Martin once worked near Til­lons­burg, Ont., but has never

tasted tobacco.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

Smoke River

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