Recurring characters feed into a larger meta-story, a vast project Van Camp admits he hasn’t fully fleshed out yet. And to be honest, it shows. Episodes bounce around in past and future, reflecting perhaps Van Camp’s love of comic books, offering multiple points to delve into character arcs. But Van Camp’s real drive is to be more ambitious. He wants to be “the Stephen King of world indigenous literature…
“It is this galaxy that’s waiting to unfold. All these characters are part of something bigger, and what it is, I haven’t quite figured it out yet.”
I can’t help wishing he’d figured it out before putting pen to paper here…
There are positives, the first half of the book is curious and engaging; the ambiguity and sense of ‘otherness’ working to Van Camp’s prose style in a way that echoes Ben Okri. Also, before the book falls off a cliff in subsequent stories, the smaller nods to northern life really connect. Characters point with their lips. One receives a “northern baptism” — a first stolen bike — though there are many types of northern baptisms, Van Camp notes. Two stories allude to a moose’s Bible, the arrangement of leaves used in divination ceremonies to ask questions of the Creator, all this sense of timeless mysticism is overlaid with a more modern
Ronny, the narrator of the opening short story, “bornagirl,” remarks on the denizens of Fort Smith (aka Fort Simmer) in the Northwest Territories, the “Métis capital of the north,” “They say Fort Smith is home to the rough and ruthless and the tough and toothless”. Readers of Van Camp’s previous works will likely recall the roughness and toughness of his usually teenage and young adult characters, depicted in the rather hard-shell exteriors they put on to mask their insecurities, weaknesses, frailties, and even human decencies. To term it macho posturing would be inaccurate, as often female characters succumb to such poses. Perhaps it’s merely adolescent angst, unmercifully turned up a few degrees (ironically) in the frigid Northwest. Of course, beyond the harsh, yet often beautiful, landscape are the brutal realities that filter into a number of Van Camp’s adult works: violence, sexual abuse, and self-hatred.
In “bornagirl,” a tough opening to this collection, the narrating Ronny confesses his role in the physical abuse of a transgender Brian; in “Blood Rides the Wind,” Bear (another first-person narrator) returns to Fort Simmer a week early ostensibly for his final year of school, but he is actually seeking revenge for the sexual molestation of his cousin Wendy; and in “Because of What I Did,” Flinch (aka Radar) is the threatening bear of a man (sometimes called “The Finisher”) who is troubled by his own capacity for violence. Yet each of these stories holds some redemption for the narrating protagonist, as Ronny faces his own misunderstandings about his own sexual longings, Bear finds a way to avoid being the Dogrib “ninja” he reluctantly set out to be, and Flinch helps rescue a girl from Lester who used “black medicine” to bewitch her into replacing his deceased wife.
Most, but not all, of the eleven stories have first-person narrators, but not all of them exclusively feature teenage characters. One of the strangest, more mysterious stories, “Skull.Full.Of.Rust,” is the lone second-person narrative. It involves a young man who, due to his special talent or gift, becomes one of the “Sniffers” for the CIA, looping state enemy’s minds into a constantly repeating hell, or elimating their memories all together. Mystery abounds in “I Double Dogrib Dare You,” in which Valentina is a “witch” (or is she a “Holy Woman”?) who returns to Fort Simmer for her twentieth anniversary high school reunion but hasn’t aged a day since (or since a photo was taken of her in 1921). Despite the ambiguity of these two stories, they are unsettling, yet oddly satisfying.
As is the case with most short story collections. 'Night Moves' is a mixed bag. Crow is a sort of medicine woman in the previously mentioned “Because of What I Did” who is tasked with, among other things, bringing the young woman Lester has abducted back into reality. But for some reason, Van Camp follows that with a “story” entitled “Crow” that offers one and a half pages of first-person Crow observations. It serves to a certain extent as a coda to the preceding story, but there is not really enough there to term it a separately titled story. “Crow” seems a tossed-off fragment.
On the one hand, this tendency is a side effect of Van Camp's style, which incorporates oral-history techniques. In many stories, like the post-apocalyptic Wheetago War, this approach works exceptionally well.
"We are the new Dene. I see this every day. I was born after the twinning of the sun and in the haunted way of the Dog People... I sometimes wake up a girl; I sometimes wake up a boy." What's happening here? What was "the twinning of the sun?" It doesn't matter. The resulting confusion enhances the chaotic experience of this ruined world, immersing the reader.
On the other hand, and in other stories, his approach weakens the material, since Van Camp doesn't commit to it. When he is more heavily drawing on European literary models, the confusion undermines his otherwise considerable strengths and leads him towards clichés and lazy prose. The overlong ”If only tonight…” – whilst gaining my approval by being named after a song by The Cure – takes this stilted approach to an almost embarrassing extreme. It is an attempt at eroticism in a drunken evening between two couples (one having just had a miscarriage, the other woman having been left by her husband upon diagnosis with breast cancer), which appears to be veering towards the sexual. However, not only is the situation clumsy but the language, rather than seductive, is blunt and mannered; graphic description of fantasy substituted for nuance. I’m not sure what Van Camp is aiming for here, but his writing suddenly becomes stilted and forced, the end result being about as erotic as a brick…
Van Camp's failings are a genuine shame since there appears to be nobody else writing about this area and this experience. Van Camp is often cited as the world's first published Dogrib author; but that doesn’t make him a great writer by default.
Like this collection, Van Camp seems more to me to be a work in progress… there is talent here, but at the moment it is lost in the wilderness.
So, with a sense of disappointment and not a little bemusement, I head south, crossing by train into Alberta; a province itself but in regional terms one of three provinces that make up the southern Prairie Provinces. Whilst I’ll be visiting the city of Calvary on this trip, I first make my way to the rather more modest town of Drumheller, population 8000, to make the acquaintance of Joey Cooper; a fortysomething mechanic, divorcee and wannabe cello-player in Ivan E Coyote’s celebrated novel ‘Bow Grip’.