My rating: 4/5 stars
Published: September 1, 2013 by NeWest Press
Source: Review copy from the publisher
At the height of the Great Depression, two Prairie children struggle with poverty and uncertainty. Surrounded by religion, law, and her authoritarian father, Cora Wagoner daydreams about what it would be like to abandon society altogether and join one of the Indian tribes she’s read so much about.
Saddened by struggles with Indian Agent restrictions, Hunter George wonders why his father doesn’t want him to go to the residential school. As he too faces drastic change, he keeps himself sane with his grandmother’s stories of Wîsahkecâhk.
As Cora and Hunter sojourn through a landscape of nuisance grounds and societal refuse, they come to realize that they exist in a land that is simultaneously moving beyond history and drowning in its excess.
I try to go with my gut when I rate books, but sometimes, I make a change after letting a book digest for a while. I gave Rupert’s Land three stars at first, but as you can see, I’ve upgraded my rating to four stars. In the week since I finished it, I often find myself thinking about the story, the characters, and the historical context. I keep thinking that I need to recommend this book to people. Doesn’t sound like three stars to me.
So why the middling rating to begin with? Quartermain uses a distinctive writing style that was hard for me to get lost in. I stayed just a bit removed that perfect reading state where you’re not thinking about the words as you read them, you’re just absorbing them. On further reflection, though, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with the writing. It’s more a matter of taste, or mood, I think. (I’ll spare you a tangent on star ratings and what they mean.)
The writing is poetic, relies of streams of consciousness from our main characters, and has some quirks, like made up compound words and a lack of punctuation. The latter actually didn’t bug me, but I know it does some people. You will find a smattering of Cree vocabulary as well – don’t worry, there’s a handy glossary in the back. I would compare the style to Faulkner or even the little throw-away chapters in The Grapes of Wrath, you know, like the one where the men are at the car dealership and the reader “hears” the background noise and snippets of conversation.
To get a sense of what I mean, check out this scene, as heroine Cora is teased by her friend Netty for refusing to try on some lingerie:
You going to wear schoolgirl bloomers all your life? Netty leans against the door frame dropping one hip. A deep dimple creases soft white flesh overhanging the knickers. Golden fuzz coats her sturdy legs.
Rather do that than end up married to Bunk.
Rate you’re going, you’ll end up an old maid.
A fussy frump then. In her blue lisle stockings. Her face like a lastyear apple, a witch’s nose touching her witch’s chin. End up a schoolmarm with a stick body and claws for hands — children running away from her, boys making stink bombs and shooting spit balls at her A is for apple over and over on the blackboard until she died. But she’s not going to make herself all fluffy and cushy like Netty does.
Quartermain’s poetic language is grounded in some traditional CanLit territory, like the the depression-era prairie setting, the suffocating small town, and the outsiders up against the strict values of the establishment. But it’s the departures from the expected that make the story so rich. The two narrators aren’t at all who or what I expected them to be.
Half of the story belongs to Hunter, a younger Aboriginal boy who’s about to be sent to residential school. Quartermain places Hunter’s story in a wider context with the title – what started out as Rupert’s Land, as in Prince Rupert, back in 1670, is still Rupert’s Land in 1930, as the Aboriginal families in the area are all beholden to a Judge Rupert for money, work, and even permission to travel.
Cora is the other narrator, a teenage girl who might be transgender. She certainly doesn’t have the words to tell us for sure, but she’s quite open about not wanting to be a girl. I love how Cora is different, but her friends aren’t just foils for her; I hate it when the only way to show that the heroine is smart and has depth is to make every other female character silly and vain.
Maybe I’m not reading widely enough, but this is the first novel I’ve read about residential schools. It’s as brutal as you’d expect. I think this book is important for the residential school section alone. It doesn’t overdo it, just plainly presents the dehumaization these kids went through on a daily basis. Hunter watches as his friend Eagle is humiliated in front of the class:
Look at me and answer me. Father Haffman pushes Eagle so he almost falls down.
What is the capital of Canada, Hunter copies from the board, Who is the Prime Minister of Canada?
I’ll tell you why you’re so stupid. The father holds his face an inch in front of Eagle’s. You were born stupid — stupid and useless.
Cora and Hunter embark on a daring journey after Hunter escapes from residential school. I loved the adventure and survival aspect of the story. I really liked how Cora learned to let go of her white savior complex. She thinks she’s helping Hunter by accompanying him on his way back home, but she mostly ends up holding him up. She also has naive ideas of “becoming an Indian” as a way to escape her problems at home:
Maybe if she were an Indian, she’d know what the vulture meant. If she were an Indian, she’d run away like Hunter and stay outside Mom and Dad’s world forever. She’d ride horses and kill raccoons. She wouldn’t just be a girl. She’d know what to do to roam around like Gabriel Dumont, living out on the prairie, but she doesn’t know. Even Indians like Hunter’s dad don’t know how to make fire without matches, and, thanks to white people, they have to stay on their reserve unless they get permission to leave. As though they’re in school, and can never get out.
The ending was at once hopeful and devastating. Perhaps the distinctive writing style serves a purpose after all; this should not a comfortable story for any Canadian, or anyone, to read.
About the Author and Q&A
Meredith Quartermain is a poet and novelist living in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her first book of poetry, Vancouver Walking, won a BC Book Award for poetry; Recipes from the Red Planet was a finalist for a BC Book Award for fiction; and Nightmarker was a finalist for a Vancouver Book Award. She is also cofounder of Nomados Literary Publishers, who have brought out more than 40 chapbooks of innovative Canadian and US writing since 2002.
Meredith agreed to answer a few questions for this post. Have I mentioned that these author Q&As are one of my favourite parts about blogging? All the authors answer in such detail and Meredith is no exception. If you’re in Edmonton, come hear more from Meredith on October 9th at 7:00 pm at (where else?) Audreys Books.
Did any authors or books influence Rupert’s Land?
Cree legends and stories which I list at the end of the book were really important, of course, but they did not particularly affect the style. I read a lot of novels by Penelope Fitzgerald at the time and I loved her sense of detail. The Blue Flower was one that really stood out. Another important influence is Daphne Marlatt, whose prose style is very lyrical.
Was there something about Stettler that made you choose it as your setting?
The historical hauntings of places have intrigued me in my poetry, particularly in my two books of poetry about Vancouver. However, Stettler was where my mother grew up, and it was her stories about growing up there that gave me the idea for a novel. I traveled to Stettler for the first time while researching the novel, and found the street where she had lived and the store where her father (my grandfather, whom I never met) worked. Then spent a few days exploring the countryside around. Standing where she stood way back when struck a thunderbolt into my narrative. It really came alive for me at that point.
I was surprised by how accepting Cora’s family and friends were when she cut her hair, and dressed in boyish clothes. It made me wonder if they were actually accepting her, or if there was a lot of denial going on. Did you have something in mind?
I guess I chose not to make an issue out of the family’s response, since the narrative becomes focused at that point on what kind of friendship Hunter and Cora could have. Once the hair is off, there’s nothing much they can do about it. The mother is more sympathetic while the father remains locked in his rigid notions of how girls should be; but the story is more about Cora’s personal journey in coming to terms with that. He never does accept her wearing pants. She only wears them when she runs away.
As a poet, do you have any suggestions for a fiction lover who wants to get into poetry?
I would suggest looking at narrative poetry. “Peter Bell” by Wordsworth will bring tears to your eyes. For more contemporary narrative poetry read all of Daphne Marlatt’s novels: Ana Historic; The Given; and The Taken. Her work is narrative but highly poetic, so much so that The Taken, which was written as a novel, won the BC Book Award for poetry. Then too you could read Diamond Grill by our current Parliamentary Poet Laureate Fred Wah.
What are your favourite classic novels?
Right now at the top of my list is the complete 7-novel cycle by Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, which I’m just finishing. Other favorites are Moby Dick and Don Quixote. Also all the novels of Virginia Woolf – especially The Waves, The Years, To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and Between the Acts. I also think Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood is amazing.
Thank you Meredith for answering my questions, and thanks NeWest Press for giving me a chance to review this book!