I’m a big fan of weird families living in a world filled with magical realism. Looking at my favourite novels, many of them have unusual families as their feature. While Canadian novels have often been dismissed as novels about farms and prairies, I’ve never found that to be the case. Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s novel, The Spawning Grounds, is a beautifully written narrative set in the Shuswap region of British Columbia. Strange and delightful, the book was enough to have me looking up at the moon as I walked the streets of Toronto and trying to find some new source of magic within it.
The great thing about The Spawning Grounds is that it’s accessible reading. The prose is simple without being simplistic and the story is relatively easy to follow. We follow the family of the Robertsons, who came to British Columbia when Eugene Robertson came to follow the gold rush. Now, they’re living in troubled times with the river being polluted and the salmon being unable to get to their spawning grounds without help. There is tension between the Robertson family and the Shuswap community for the Robertsons’ perceived hand in commercial development of the area. The community doesn’t want new houses built, but it looks like the head of the Robertson family, the grandfather Stewart, is wavering since the money would be helpful to him and his family.
As for the rest of the Robertson family, there’s a tangled history there too. Hannah and Brandon, Stewart’s grandkids, have grown up under his watch after their mother died and their father moved away. Unable to handle the stress of raising children or to come to terms with the death of his wife Hannah’s father, Jesse, has been away for years and only comes back when the family begins to crumble under the pressure that naturally builds as people grow older.
The Shuswap community brings life to a story that would have otherwise been competent, but forgettable. Without their stories, the narrative would have been those bland Canadian narratives that I’ve seen Canadian fiction portrayed as. Which brings us to the big elephant in the room. Does Gail Anderson-Dargatz, a white woman of British descent, have the right to be the one translating the Shuswap culture into the written word?
I’m on the fence for this one. Particularly since most of Anderson-Dargatz’s narrative is about bridge building between the communities, about the mistreatment of indigenous people at the hands of white settlers, and while it focuses in on the magical properties of the stories of the Shuswap, it doesn’t exoticize the community in a way that made them ‘other’ in a way that I can detect (full disclosure: I am not part of the indigenous community and thus my lack of detection may be meaningless).
To summarize quickly, she says that the use of indigenous culture in fiction depends on the usage of it. Anderson-Dargatz points out that much of her fiction has been about the boundaries set between First Nations and white settlers, and their interactions. In the end, she believes that writing about indigenous cultures is a way of building bridges:
“In The Spawning Grounds, there is a river between my two fictional communities. There is also a bridge that both communities cross, one that is destroyed in the narrative, and must be rebuilt. Just as, of course, a bridge must be rebuilt between these cultures in real life. We’re working on it.”
While I haven’t heard anything about Gail Anderson-Dargatz that could be comparable to the outcry against Joseph Boyden for the spotlight he’s taken from indigenous writers, it’s something that the reader should keep in mind.
Despite any potential controversy, The Spawning Grounds is a beautiful book, rich with themes about friction in relationships. Whether those relationships are romantic, familial, spiritual, communal, or cultural, there are frictions there that we must address lest we lose something precious to us while we were squabbling. Life is precious and the resources of both the earth and the human body are finite, so we should make the best use of them that we can in responsible ways.
Overtax the human body and it will die. Overtax the earth and the human body will still die after taking many of the creatures on this earth with it.