Sunday, July 19, 2015

Across Canada Reading Challenge Part 2: The Territories

If you weren't already aware, I finished my Across Canada Reading Challenge, which is a mini-challenge I gave myself as part of the Around the World Reading Challenge. I talked about the books I read set in each of the 10 Canadian provinces yesterday, and today I'm going to talk about the books I read that were set in each of the three territories. The three territories are the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. I didn't know this until now, but apparently the difference between provinces and territories is that provinces receive their power from the Constitution Act, and and the territorial governments get power from the federal government. 


For the Yukon I read The Slow Fix by Ivan E. Coyote, which is a collection of short stories about the life of the author. A lot of the stories were about what gender is or should be, and different people and society's interpretation of it. There were also a few stories that were focused on the author's upbringing in the Yukon. I loved this book, it was such a fun and entertaining read. I think I was smiling the entire time I was reading it. It was so nice to read something light and funny, but also intelligent, after reading many brain-stretching books. The author had such a perfect quirky voice that brought life to the everyday stories she told, but also had good things to say. I think even if you aren't into reading it'd be a good book to read, since the stories are short and entertaining.


For this territory I read Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay. This was a book set in the 1960s or 1970s, about the community at a radio station in Yellowknife. At the same time as it was about this northern radio station, there was also the issue of a pipeline and native land rights in the background. That was interesting to read about, especially since the same kind of thing is happening now. However, it was mostly a simple, very slow moving story about the lives of the staff at this radio station. Although it was slow, I found myself getting attached to the characters and their relationships with each other anyway. The best part, though, were the descriptions of the land in the north that make you feel as if you were a part of this epic landscape, just as much as the characters in the book.


I read Consumption by Kevin Patterson, which is set in a bunch of different places in Nunavut, and some characters also spend some time in Manitoba. (The author himself is from Winnipeg). This was a really interesting book. It followed the life of a handful characters, centering around the life one Inuit girl, Victoria, and her life after she contracts tuberculosis. She's then sent to Winnipeg for an operation, and when she comes back she feels removed from her original culture, and she goes on to marry a white man. The book goes on to follow the lives of various characters who live in the north, from Victoria's kids and parents, to a couple of teachers at one of the schools, to a few other characters who live in the same community. It covers quite a few years, from when Victoria is a young girl to when she has grandkids, I think. One of the major themes is definitely how the culture changes in this northern community over those years, and how each of the characters are affected by that. 

I loved reading about the North of Canada, just because it's so very different and removed from the rest of Canada. (I do regret that I didn't read any books set in the territories by Aboriginal authors, though). There are two similarities that are prominent in each of these Northern stories. One is the theme of land. It's amazing how much the place itself defines the people that live there. Life in the north, the characters and authors of these books tell me, is something beautiful and special and something that you don't understand if you haven't experienced it for yourself. In each of the three books, the descriptions of the land and the natural atmosphere completely take you in and transport you to that place and time. The other theme, in contrast with the theme of the natural, harsh landscape, is that of the loss of culture (indigenous culture in particular) to Western cultural values and consumerism. In one of the stories in The Slow Fix, Ivan E. Coyote talks about how one of the cities in the Yukon has been taken over by Walmarts and McDonalds. The entire story in Consumption is about how many of the indigenous characters have been taken away from or have no choice but to turn away from the only way of life they knew previously, that is living off the land. 

I think the last line of Consumption brings these two themes together beautifully: 

“The narwhals surface in the bay, waving their tusks in the air; only a few miles out of town, the last of North America’s great herding land mammals, the tuktu, caribou, paw the grass and the moss by the many thousands and shiver collectively when they smell predators approaching. Contained within this beauty, and perhaps its necessary consequence, are the people here—who huddle similarly close and watch for one another’s peril.”


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