Northern survival theme makes for an undeniably Canadian tale

[attach]1991[/attach]Simple story. Two 40-something Quebec natives who have been living in Toronto separately return to their northern hometown of Ile D’Or. In the mining town they meet former friends and remnants of families. They talk a lot, try a few tentative flings, eventually leave.

Complex story. Emotionally. Especially as they hook up romantically with two others of their generation who never left town. All four have pasts — ghosts of dead ex-lovers, marriages on the rocks, family mysteries, and professional doubts — which twist together during the visit.

The most important character though may be Ile D’Or itself, a grasping town built on the greed for gold, on a rough-hewn individualist morality, and on the division between the English and French. Our protagonists were born in the hard-scrabble 1930s, raised into the narrow-minded 1950s and are returning to their roots in 1980, shortly after the first Quebec referendum, which rejected the separatist option. In many ways Ile D’Or is a far different world now from the one they grew up in, but many of the problems that drove away the young people remain and now in approaching middle age they have to face them.

Toronto writer May Lou Dickinson, herself a former Quebec northerner, somehow keeps all these emotional, social and political threads straight to weave an involving story of ordinary people figuring each other out.

There’s something very Canadian in the content with its characters’ experiences in snow-driven cabins, with horses stuck in swamps, and on frozen lakes — the northern survival theme should please our literary theorists.

But the unadorned, earnest style is also very much of this country’s past. The writing is quite direct and accomplished, especially given that this is the first novel for the 70-something author. Perhaps it’s a little old-fashioned — but old-fashioned in the way readers like, telling a complicated story simply and effectively.

And every now and then Dickinson’s characters throw in an explicit but honest sexual reference (to throw off anyone who’s dwelling too much on the author’s age).

If I have any disappointment with the novel, it’s that the story doesn’t come to any great climax. Certain revelations are made. Some relationships are resolved. Conclusions are reached. But life goes on in the town and the protagonists continue to muddle through their messy lives.

But that too may be very Canadian. Nothing overly dramatic, nothing bigger than life. Our modest lives as they are.