macCloud Falls

Robert Alan Jamieson
Format: Hardback Pages: 320 pages Publisher: Luath Press Ltd Publication Date: 15/09/2017 Category: Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945) ISBN: 9781912147076
by Harry McGrath

McCANADA

August 12, 2017 | by Harry McGrath

No country has been described in terms of another to the extent that Canada was by Scotland. From the Dunbar area of Vancouver to Inverness in Nova Scotia, Scots festooned Canada with familiar toponyms. One relatively small corner of southern Alberta, for instance, has a Calgary, a Banff, a Canmore and an Airdrie. If you include the personal naming of mountains, rivers, lakes and waterfalls, the number of places in Canada that have names derived from Scotland runs to the thousands.

But one person’s renaming is another’s theft; a way of staking out territory to justify its possession. The Scots were never shy about their presence in Canada and, beyond dishing out Scottish names, endlessly inventive in finding ways to announce it. Stanley Park in Vancouver is named for an Englishman, but in 1928 Ramsay MacDonald unveiled a Burns statue there. It is modelled on the one in Ayr and the plinth is dug into high ground at the heart of the traditional territory of three Coast Salish Nations – the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh. The statue celebrated the poet but it was also a way of saying ‘this is ours now’.

Scots renamed people too. A close friend in British Columbia had the surname Bruce when she was a member of one First Nation community and became Wallace when she married into another. Bruce came from her great grandfather who was an Orkney fur trader and Wallace from an Indian agent registering people for the Canadian government who, her husband told me, ‘either didn’t want to or couldn’t be bothered writing down our real names.’ The people of her community are Wallaces to this day and the removal of their names begat the removal of everything else, including their culture and their children. Their community is now one of the poorest in Canada, but close to one of the richest – the ski resort of Whistler, British Columbia.

‘Jamieson is a writer of endless narrative invention and soaring prose’

None of this has stopped writers from whitesplaining First Nations’ experiences. John Buchan’s Sick Heart River includes some problematic First Nation characters, routinely excused as Buchan being a man of his time. More recently, it’s almost impossible to escape the British Columbia school system without reading I Heard the Owl Call My Name. Written by American Margaret Craven, it is set in the First Nations village of Kingcome on the West Coast, home to the Kwakwaka’wakw nation. Both novels are concerned with sickness and death. Buchan’s Sir Edward Leithen has advanced tuberculosis and has been given a year to live. Craven’s young Anglican vicar also suffers from a terminal illness and the Kwakwaka’wakw believe that he will die soon after the owl calls him.

It is a brave writer, then, who would broach any of these themes in a work of modern fiction, far less all of them. But Robert Alan Jamieson does just that in macCloud Falls. He has travelled a long way from his under-appreciated 2010 novel Da Happie Land which was set in Shetland but reached to the South Pacific. Now in British Columbia, he focusses on the province’s Scottish connections, First Nations’ land rights, illness and Burns. And if that’s not enough, the book has a love affair at its heart.

The narrative opens in medias res. Jamieson’s protagonist Gilbert Johnson, an antiquarian bookseller from Edinburgh, has taken a Greyhound bus to a small town in interior British Columbia and Veronika is looking for him. They met when Gil’s flight from Scotland stopped over in Calgary. Both are cancer survivors and Veronika – whose resemblance to Sigourney Weaver confuses the locals – is afraid that Gil is contemplating suicide, perhaps influenced by ‘Sick Heart River’. Instead of Gil, she finds a journal in his hotel room which proves that her fears were not unfounded. It also contains a fictionalised account of the time they spent together in Vancouver and some information about Gil’s Canada quest. He wants to research and write about a migrant Scot called James Lyle to whom he might be related. To that end, he has hiked into a secret valley in the hope of discovering the cabin where Lyle lived with his first wife, a member of the Nlaka’pamux nation.

It’s soon clear that Lyle is a version of the real-life John Teit (or Tate), a migrant Scot who married a Nlaka’pamux woman and became fluent in several First Nations languages. Teit was born on the Shetland Islands and migrated in 1884 to Spences Bridge in British Columbia’s Fraser Canyon. He initially helped manage a store on an estate owned by his uncle, John Murray, an enthusiastic renamer who called a local mountain ‘Arthurs Seat’ (now ‘Art’s Ass’ to some irreverent Canadians). Murray grew fruit and his orchard became famous for Grimes Golden apples when it was under the care of a ‘Widow Smith’. Teit eventually worked with anthropologist Franz Boas and was an advocate for First Nations’ rights in British Columbia, acting as a bridge to white officialdom. When Canadian Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier visited Kamloops, British Columbia, in 1910, Teit prepared the declaration that asserted land rights on behalf of the Secwepemc, Okanagan and Nlaka’pamux nations. His Susanna Lucy Antko and they lived together for twelve years Nlaka’pamux wife was until her death in 1899.

Jamieson’s Lyle shadows Teit in every important respect (if Tate and Lyle isn’t a clue, then it should be). Lyle’s uncle John MacLeod is clearly John Murray, Widow Smith becomes Widow Spark, Lyle’s wife is also called Antko and when Gil travels to ‘MacLeod Falls’ in search of their stories, he ends up in a place that sounds a lot like Spences Bridge. But Teit’s thin disguise allows Jamieson to move some geographical features around and insert Gil into Lyle’s story. Gil believes that Lyle, who made a trip back to Shetland after he migrated to Canada, could be his grandfather.

All this provides an early indication of Jamieson’s sensitive touch. Teit/Lyle is the kind of Scot sometimes used to assuage colonial guilt. The argument is that some Scots settlers were more sympathetic to the First Nations and more prone to intermarriage than others in the British colonial project and somehow partially atone for other Scots like Canada’s first Prime Minster John A. Macdonald, architect of the assimilationist Indian Act and the residential school system. Gil resists this exculpatory line and, instead, embarks on a voyage of discovery which reveals that the credit for Lyle’s actions really belongs to someone else.

The journal discloses the fact that Gil is aware of ‘the right to name, the language of power, the dominant narrative’ and, with the help of an elder and a young Nlaka’pamux woman, he learns to read First Nation silences rather than depend on the voluminous written testimonies that Scots tended to leave behind. However, he also feels the need to provide some lengthy formal explanations that interrupt the narrative flow. After he reappears, Gil has Veronika read a book proposal which includes a six page appendix entitled ‘A Chronology of the History and Exploration and Settlement of the territories known to early European voyagers ‘New Caledonia’. It is the kind of thing a British Columba high school student might use as a primer for his social studies exam. Later a group of tree planters rehearse some routine arguments about First Nations’ land rights while Gil listens from outside the hotel window.

After his Nlaka’pamux nation epiphany, Gil heads to Barriere, British Columbia to meet Gordon who thinks he has a first edition of Burns’ Kilmarnock poems. He had remote contact with Gordon while still in Edinburgh but the episode feels extraneous and unlikely. They travel to Helmcken Falls in Wells Gray Provincial Park to no obvious purpose other than to describe them. There’s a similar sense of randomness when Gil watches hockey games, all of them from the Stanley Cup series between the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins in 2011. He never masters the vocabulary of the game and speaks of fouls and puckdowns. More importantly, he misses the key role that hockey plays in Vancouver by giving its ethnically-diverse population a cause to gather around. For once, this includes the First Nations. Algonquin Gino Odjick is a Canucks legend. I met my first First Nation Wallaces while watching a Canucks hockey game in the Legion Hall in Pemberton, British Columbia.

These are minor quibbles. Perhaps it is unfair to expect Gil to understand hockey on such brief acquaintance or have him fully resolve the novel’s central dilemma: the provision of too much formal information for a British Columbia audience and not enough for a Scottish one. Jamieson is a writer of endless narrative invention and soaring prose and he tells an important story here. Scotland tends to view its Canada connections as historical but Jamieson’s pursuit of Jimmy Lyle makes it clear that they still influence the way Canada functions today.

Eventually everything else drops away from the story and all that’s left is love and illness. The final passages are very affecting and achingly familiar as a loved one turns towards Scotland and leaves you there in the Vancouver gloaming: ‘Tomorrow he too would fly above the city, on the first leg of the journey back to Scotland – across the Rockies where he first met her, then on across the vast wastes of Northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland and the Atlantic, back to the North Sea, far from this strange Pacific shore. The day of departure would carry him through the night towards home, but also towards the end of this companionship. This love he now felt. He could call it that, on his side at least.’

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