Children’s insights poignantly captured

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September 10, 2013

Rupert’s Land
Meredith Quartermain

NeWest Press, 2013

296 pages, $20.95

Reviewed by Margaret Thompson

The title of award-winning poet Meredith Quartermain’s first novel immediately summons up Charles II’s land-gift to the nascent Hudson’s Bay Company, but this is no fur trade story. What is important about Rupert’s Land in this context is its immensity, and the hint of limitless possibility in its emptiness. In different ways, this is what both of the novel’s child narrators are desperate to find.

The story is set during the Depression in the small prairie town of Stettler. Cora Wagoner feels constricted by society’s expectations and paternalistic attitudes. She yearns to wear dungarees, study science, go to university and emulate the independence of her aunts in Toronto—“she knows she isn’t just a girl, she can be anything”— but she is trapped by the demands of religion and gender and has little to look forward to but subservient domesticity.  She comforts herself with notions of a different life, an idealized “Indian” existence that owes far more to reading “Hiawatha” than any reality. Hunter George on the other hand is a Cree boy living that reality. He is equally trapped: his family is loving and supportive, but cruelly impoverished; his parents, victimized by the Indian agent; his only prospect, separation from his family and exile far away in residential school. He too takes refuge in his imagination, in the mythical stories of Wîsahkecâhk told by his grandmother. Inevitably, the children’s paths cross when Hunter runs away from the school after his friend dies from neglect, and the pair set off on a borrowed horse to try and get Hunter back home.

Quartermain brilliantly evokes the dustbowl setting and its effect on her characters. Riding across country, Cora observes:

“Whirlwinds of dust skitter towards them across the open, treeless land bringing its blind emptiness of skeletons and abandoned houses—emptiness silting in the whole of Canada—swallowing up tractors and farms and Dad’s job in the store—swallowing up Edmonton and Toronto, and even Aunt Beulah and university.”

This world is not empty, though. It is peopled by the marginalized: hoboes, some good, some crazed and violent; dispossessed families on the move; defensive and hostile farmers. The children kill ducks and a raccoon to survive—“We’re turning into animals, she says”— and are themselves hunted by men with guns, as they traverse a landscape pocked with campsites and garbage dumps, rail lines and highways.

The background of despair is familiar from writers like Sinclair Ross, but the way Quartermain brings an age to life while staring unflinchingly at its attitudes and injustices through the eyes of children is reminiscent of To Kill A Mockingbird. The same innocent intelligence that characterizes Scout in that novel informs Cora’s and Hunter’s acute observations, conveyed in a blend of pitch perfect dialogue and inner voices. The device allows us to experience the frustration and yearning of the main characters, and at the same time to recognize the deadly ramifications of oppression, especially the toxic influence of the residential schools—a modern understanding that makes the novel’s ending all the more poignant.

 

Margaret Thompson is the author of six books, most recently Adrift on the Ark: Our Connection to the Natural World.  Her new novel,  entitled The Cuckoo’s Child, will be published in Spring 2014.

 

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