The Boston Globe called her fiction “Pacific Northwest Gothic” and her latest novel, The Spawning Grounds, fits that description well.

anderson-dargatz-spawningShe made a splash on Canadian readers’ stacks since The Cure for Death by Lightning was shortlisted for the Giller Prize (A Recipe for Bees was also nominated for the Giller, and there have been other nominations too).

Here’s a piece which discusses the importance of landscape in her new novel, set in the area of Canada which the author knows so well.

In The Spawning Grounds, the language itself allows the reader to adjust the framework, to associate place and person in more concrete terms than one finds customary. In case you’re not used to thinking about the ways that a thought can be like a stone.

Consider this passage: “Then his attention was caught by a flash of water on the wall, a reflection, the pretty thing, catching light. He reached out to touch the mirror, and as one thought skipped across his mind another took its place, one overlapping the other in concentric circles in the water.”

The very structure of the story, paragraph and sentence, is designed to shift the reader’s perspective, to urge one to consider that boundaries which we once thought so rigid are actually more pliant than we might have expected.

Connection is not only at the root of this story, but at the root of the author’s philosophy about storytelling as well (she teaches writing at UBC):

“Writing and reading open the door to understanding another person, another culture, and another way of seeing the world. My father and the Shuswap men he worked with got to know each other with a simple exchange of stories told over a campfire. They listened to each other, then took each other’s stories home and passed them on. That’s how we start to rebuild those bridges.”

In addition to some obvious thematic and relational connections, there are many subtle connections interwoven into the story (for instance, a zigzag shape might recur in a variety of guises: a storm scene, an actual bolt of lightning that strikes a structure beneath, a pictograph’s pattern, lines on Hannah’s palm).

But that doesn’t mean a rigidly-knit and overly precise narrative, nor a seamless understanding: bridges that require rebuilding have been broken.

There is much talk of division in The Spawning Grounds and, indeed, the novel opens with a protest; the welfare of the river is at risk and some want to wrest control from its current owners to make repairs while others debate whether rivers can be owned (or whether they are simply part of indigenous residents’ homeland).

Sometimes there are divisions even within a single person, but sometimes there are no divisions even when some might be anticipated (for instance, Dennis’ acceptance of both his elders’ stories and Christianity) and there are divisions where some might not be expected (that’s attached to rather a large spoiler about another character).

“His two faiths sat peacefully side by side, like two family pit houses in the same village. [Dennis, elders’ stories and Christianity]”

And although miscommunications and distances can lead to broken bridges, at other times the territory between is successfully negotiated.

“‘Got your smoke signal,’ he said. When Hannah raised an eyebrow at him, he tapped the cellphone in his jacket pocket.
Hannah wasn’t sure what to think of these small jokes Alex made. Had the Shuswap even used smoke signals? She figured he was making fun of her, poking holes in the preconceptions he assumed she carried from her white world. Then again, maybe not. He had, after all, reinvented himself during his time away at university; he had distanced himself from his roots, even as he returned to them.”

Sometimes the reader is simply left to sort out the silences and omissions, along with the characters, who have varying degrees of experience and understanding. “Stew grunted. He wasn’t sure now what he had chosen to tell Hannah and Brandon – or Jesse – and what he had withheld from them. There had been a time when he believed some family stories were better left buried with their dead.”

Sometimes the reader has to talk the line between madness and mystery, for “…what had been a numinous truth for that instant in twilight seemed madness in the wakefulness of day.”

And what one calls the mystery, another might call madness. Not every reader will fall where some of the characters fall on this matter; some inhabit extremes (on both sides) so there is bound to be some disconnect.

“’She’s filled with the mystery, all right,’ he told Alex, in English so Stew would hear. Then, in Secwepemctsin, he said to Eaine, ‘I see you’ve begun your work.'”

But the open-minded reader will discover some wonders herein.

Hannah stepped out of the bush and walked to the river’s edge, expecting, willing her mother to be there, on the other side. But where she would have found her mother, there was only a crow hopping in the muddy gravel along the shore, cawing. The bird cocked its head to look at her, across the water, and cawed again. But now it sounded like any other crow.”

Sky and water: more connected than we might have thought.

Gail Anderson-Dargatz appeared at Toronto’s 2016 International Festival of Authors:
Sunday October 23 1:30pm “Immersive Settings” (Reading)
Tuesday October 25 6pm “New Faces of Fiction” (Reading)

Have you read one of Gail Anderson Dargatz’s works before? Have there been other broken or mended bridges in your reading stack lately?