July 2008

Brandee Strachan


Alberta, 1903/Saskatchewan, 21st century

Books are always about travel, some more literally, more directly, than others. Reading as a method of gaining perspective, of taking an impossible journey -- everyone knows that one, of course. But between the categories of Fodor’s Guides and straight-out otherworld fantasies, there’s a category of books (into which a great many fall) that aren’t necessarily travel books, but that, over the course of their stories, immerse you so fully in an environment that they very well could be.

I have traveled a little and read a lot (often while traveling). In this column, I’ll be writing not just about travel books, but about books, fiction or otherwise, that contain a good portion of travelogue or in which location plays a major role, something along the lines of film noir’s city as character. The columns won’t come across strictly as a collection of tours, though certainly that’s part of the goal, but will also include what setting contributes to the story and how (well) that sense of location is evoked. How writing creates the atmosphere, essentially, and what that atmosphere has to do with the story. I’m hoping to have the columns come together as a sort of travel guide to places both real and fictional, a discussion of both writing and journeys.

That sounds incredibly pretentious; my apologies. Perhaps it’s best just to say that this column will be a literal travel guide to the places encountered in books, fiction and nonfiction alike. Come along for the ride -- it’ll be a hell of a lot cheaper than plane tickets or a full tank of gas, these days, and a lot less risky, too (and considering some of the destinations, definitely a lot more feasible).

My clothes are packed and I want to go
Idaho oh Idaho
-Josh Ritter, Idaho

Gil Adamson's The Outlander takes place in a Canada that doesn't quite exist anymore, though the Publisher's Weekly review describes it as taking place across "Idaho and Montana." On her website, Adamson points out that while it actually takes place in Alberta, they're "very similar parts of the world." Give or take a couple degrees of latitude.

The Outlander follows the flight of one Mary Boulton, a young and newly widowed murderess (yes, the last two are related) across Alberta in 1903. Of course, as it's 1903, the methods of travel are limited. Mary Boulton begins her flight through the wilderness on foot and later gains a horse; she does not travel speedily, though she does travel light. It's a story of nature, both human and the flora/fauna variety, and immersing the heroine to such a degree in both makes it a memorable tour. While Mary isn't always in a position to appreciate it, nature is never any less than an equal character in the novel. Even when describing the blank expanse of night, Adamson never falters in her description:

The night was so dark she thought something stood between her eyes and the rest of the world. Blindness could not be this complete. Nothing but the sound of wind through trees. Somewhere to her left, the breathing horse. And high above, the slow funhouse creaking of pine branches.

The Outlander is Adamson's first novel, coming after two volumes of poetry and a collection of short stories. It might come as no surprise, then, that the language of The Outlander is that of a poet: crisp, precise, and evocative. This serves well to create a breathtaking portrait of Alberta's wilderness, as well as the distinctive characters Mary encounters as she flees across it. Adamson's beautifully rendered story often left me with the urge to traverse the area by horseback and by foot, as her heroine does; luckily, she followed these descriptions with equally-vivid descriptions of the dangers found along the way:

Snow in his lungs, on his blue lips, driven on furious night winds through the very fabric of his tent, and in the morning, crystals carried sparkling on the air. In this extreme cold he saw peril and beauty in measured balance, like a promise to him alone, a silent confirmation of the divine.

The consistent use of epithets in place of names throughout the novel creates a sense of distance, a technique that gives the characters an odd sense of distinction, a status they have to possess in order to survive the wilderness around them, and it makes every scene that much more of a portrait, an ode to the last wild places, many of which no longer exist.

The Outlander is dust kicked up on summer roads, sharp winter nights when your breath freezes in the air, mid-spring days when sunlight cuts through forest leaves as though into a cathedral. It's the human part of all of that, too: sweat and grime, fear and wonder. And it's all rendered in beautiful prose, with a kick-ass adventure story to drive it along. Tour the Alberta (or Idaho/Montana) of a century ago, as written by a poet and without the peril inherent in actually being there -- 2008, in all of its high-priced gas, supercrowded-freeway glory will be here when you get back.

One province over (which would make it something like Montana/Wyoming, for those interested in playing Match-the-Region), and on the other side of the century, we have Annette LaPointe's debut novel, Stolen. Stolen's protagonist is hardly a hero: Rowan Friesen is a loner who makes his living via theft and drug dealing. He's a computer geek and a devotee of the art of making mix tapes. He burns the mixes to CD first. His new boyfriend's a math teacher who's "twenty-six and still falls down like a kid. He looks like Rowan beats him."

The backdrop for their relationship is prairie, for the most part, and small towns where the kids have nothing better to do than provide Rowan's drug-dealing business with customers. Unlike his earlier-century counterpart, Rowan's got a truck and nowhere in particular to be; while he's known to the police, he's not exactly on Canada's most wanted list.

Rowan is not immediately likeable. If you're looking for a friendly guide, you'll probably prefer Mary, who, for all her distance, is at least portrayed as sympathetic as the story begins. If you're willing to get to know Rowan a little better, though, or don't mind a few rough edges, you're in for a hell of a ride. Veering from Saskatchewan down into the States (and eventually over into the 49th State), LaPointe's cool, occasionally cruel, prose doesn't pull any punches. Sure, the characters might not be very nice people, but they're not exactly living in a world of sunshine and flowers: Rowan's father is missing and possibly dead, Rowan's best friend (and lover) from high school is locked up in a mental institution, and there's something not very nice at all buried out in the pasture.

Interspersed with the present-time semi-mystery/semi-romance are flashbacks detailing Rowan's past: with a mentally-ill father and a mother who's more interested in expressing her inner womanhood via henna and drum circles than in raising a child, Rowan travels a lot. In traveling with him (to destinations including to a public school in Vancouver and his grandfather's farm, where he learns to rope horses) we find out why maybe he's not such a nice guy these days, and why maybe we can't exactly blame him.

While The Outlander's tone is distant, refined if not restrained, Stolen's is far more visceral and jagged, echoing the bleakness of the location. While Stolen doesn't share The Outlander's use of technical poetry, LaPointe's writing has a rhythm all its own, and one perhaps more suited to the story of rural dystopia, all grit and roadwear and sleepless nights. Stolen is no less vivid than The Outlander, but it's all sharp edges:

He knows the snow is there but he can't see it. The night's so beautiful. It's a perfect smoke-colour created by distance and the barest haze of tractor-burned diesel. Dust rising from scattered fields. He's almost exactly one thousand miles south of the Arctic Circle. It sounds like an impossible distance until he thinks that's only fifteen hours driving. It takes eight and a half hours just to reach Calgary from here.

The night is so beautiful it's like a post-coital high.

He last had sex fifty-seven weeks ago.

And it's colder, most of the time, too.

Both of these books will take you to a raw, wild Canada (and if you're reluctant to cross borders with me this early in our relationship, dear readers, just take the Publisher's Weekly route and visit Montana instead). Neither of these are nice stories, in the strictest sense, but then, they're stories about travel, not about vacationing. While the ride might not be easy, you'll see a hell of a lot on the way.