Canada Reads Along: Nostalgia

Cover image for Nostalgia by M.G. Vassanjiby M. G. Vassanji

ISBN 978-0-385-6617-3

“But now I have this strange feeling that I myself don’t belong. The world is not mine anymore. I who implanted idyllic fictions am a fiction myself and that fiction is falling apart.”

In a future where the wealthy can afford to extend their youth, patients sometimes live multiple lives, having their memories erased and replaced in order to take on new identities. Dr. Frank Sina specializes in treating patients who are suffering from Leaked Memory Syndrome, more commonly known as Nostalgia. These patients are experiencing breakthrough memories from their past lives, a precursor to a potentially serious breakdown. When Presley Smith arrives in Dr. Sina’s office, he has been repeatedly hearing the phrase “it’s midnight, the lion is out” running through his mind. Dr. Sina becomes fascinated and then obsessed with this case, even after Presley declines treatment and then disappears. Dr. Sina continues to investigate, but soon the government comes knocking at his door. By law, most patients have all records of their past lives deleted, but it seems that Presley was an exception, either a criminal, a terrorist, or an immigrant from the other side of the Long Border who has been assimilated. But despite this warning, there is something about the case that Dr. Sina cannot let go, even when it threatens to unravel his own carefully constructed life.

Despite being at the heart of the mystery, Presley Smith is relatively uninteresting as a character. Dr. Sina is caught by the case, but for the reader, there is nothing about Presley to particularly pique curiosity. He seems unremarkable, and more like a plot device pushing the story forward than an individual character until relatively late in the book when his past life is eventually revealed. Before that, he is mostly the spur that causes Frank to begin questioning his place in this society he has helped to build. The more he investigates Presley’s case, the more Frank questions his job, his relationship, and his beliefs. Presley’s unraveling is the trigger, but it is Frank’s coming undone that is centered. Stylistically, Nostalgia is part literary, part sci-fi, part noirish mystery. Vassanji maintains his ponderous literary writing style, with a sci-fi premise, and a slowly unraveling mystery at the heart of the narrative

Like Presley, Dr. Sina’s girlfriend, Joanie, doesn’t feel like a real, fully fledged person. She is a G0, or a Baby, a real young person who has never been reborn into a new life. She lives with Frank, but he is fully aware that she is stepping out with another, probably younger, man on the side. She is a foil to Frank’s rejuvenated state, and an embodiment of the intergenerational divide. This is something that is already present in a way in our own world, but it is magnified in Vassanji’s imagination by the fact that the longer lives of the wealthy “rejuvies” mean that 30% of young people are unemployed, and resentful of the fact that older people refuse to step aside to provide opportunities for the next generation.

Nostalgia depicts a world that is divided between rich and poor, North and South. The Long Border is a literal construction in this world, a barrier that divides the developed North Atlantic region from poor, war-torn areas, except for the occasional carefully orchestrated tourism trip. The South is ravaged by hunger, disease, and radiation, and its residents frequently attempt the dangerous crossing. This fictional physical barrier embodies a figurative divide that already exists in our world and is worsening as the refugee crisis continues to grow. In that respect, Nostalgia feels very real and timely. Although Vassanji spent more than ten years writing the book, it looms large today as the new American administration proposes to build a wall along the Mexican border.

Nostalgia was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by Canadian military veteran and current Ottawa city council member Jody Mitic. All of the remaining books received at least one vote for elimination during the second day. The deciding factor against Nostalgia was not clear, but Candy Palmater noted that the book was very male dominated, and Chantal Kreviazuk observed that the narrative was too personal to Dr. Frank. When it was time to cast the ballots, Humble the Poet voted against Company Town, Measha Breuggergosman voted to eliminate The Right to be Cold, and Jody Mitic cast his vote against Fifteen Dogs. Chantal Kreviazuk voted against Nostalgia, and so the final vote went to Candy Palmater—the first free agent after her book, The Break, was eliminated yesterday. Her vote made Nostalgia the second book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2017.

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Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along? Check out my review and recap of The Break by Katherena Vermette.

Canada Reads Along: The Break

Cover image for The Break by Katherena Vermetteby Katherena Vermette

ISBN 978-1-4870-011-7

“She nods but I don’t know if she knows yet, that men are good, strong, amazing and ordinary, but not everything. They can’t be. They are too busy doing other things, and she should be too.”

When a young indigenous woman is attacked on Winnipeg’s troubled North side, her family gathers around her hospital bed. Four generations of women close ranks, belatedly trying to protect their victimized relative. However, as they struggle to understand what has happened, the spectres of their own traumatic pasts begin to rise, demanding to be acknowledged at last. Officer Scott is the ambitious young Métis policeman dispatched with his partner to investigate the brutal assault. He sympathizes with the family, but his efforts to solve the case are hampered by the victim’s reluctance to speak up, and the roadblocks thrown up by his jaded, burnt-out partner. Many perspectives weave together as the truth about what really happened that night out on the Break unfolds.

The Break is the heart-wrenching story of a community that has been repeatedly torn apart by violence, as Winnipeg’s indigenous population struggles with the lingering effects of colonization. Through the skillful use of multiple narrative perspectives, Katherena Vermette illustrates how trauma accumulates and cascades down through the generations, becoming compounded as those who have been hurt try to raise the next generation of children, who cannot help but be affected by their parents’ pain, even when those parents do their best to shield their children from repeating their mistakes.

All of the women of the family this story centres on were such fully realized, sympathetic characters. They are daughters and sisters, aunts and cousins, friends and coworkers. Each woman has her own struggles, and difficult secrets or traumas in her past. Louisa’s partner of five years, and the father of her child, has just left her. After struggling for many years, Pauline has finally managed to overcome her instinctive distrust of men enough to allow her boyfriend to move in. Their mother Cheryl struggles with substance abuse, but she is proud of the fact that she has come so far and now runs an art gallery. Running underneath the most recent tragedy is a current of tension, a memory of the last time the family was hurt this way, when Cheryl’s sister Rain died. But they all shy away from thinking about it, and so Rain’s death is the shadow narrative that mirrors the latest tragedy.

The men in the story are more absences than presences, defined by leaving and separation. They too are all hurting in their own way, and in turn hurting others as they try to cope with their pain. They are not as clearly drawn as the women, but they are not monsters, either, but flawed human beings. Officer Scott is the only male point of view character, and is the most well-developed. He is Metis, but never actively identified himself as such until his girlfriend convinced him to check the box on the application form for the police academy. But now everyone in the department knows, and this case in particular forces him to begin coming to terms with the heritage he has avoided for so long.

The Break was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by comedian and broadcaster Candy Palmater. In her opening remarks, Palmater highlighted the way in which The Break illustrates the continuing effects of colonization on Canada’s indigenous people. This year’s Canada Reads theme is “the one book Canada needs now,” and Palmater argued that this is a book that can help heal the nation as the country’s 150th birthday approaches in July. She also highlighted the fact that The Break emerged as an early audience favourite in online polls and best seller lists.

Panelist Measha Brueggergosman tore into The Break with a reverse sexism line of argument that Candy Palmater admitted afterward she had never expected when she prepared to defend the book. Brueggergosman argued that The Break excluded men, and that there were no redeemable male characters. She found the instinctive distrust the women in the story had for men—a reaction born from their history of abuse—divisive. Jodi Mitic admitted that he did not relate to the book as a man. In her rebuttal, Palmater pointed to Officer Scott as an example of a positive male character, and tried to highlight the way in which The Break is intended to center and reflect the experiences of indigenous women, as well as the harm both men and women in that community have suffered in the fall out of colonization.

Unmoved my Palmater’s rebuttal and closing remarks, both Brueggergosman and Mitic voted against The Break when the time came to eliminate the first book of the competition. This created a tie with The Right to be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutier, which Palmater and Humble the Poet voted against. Chantal Kreviazuk—who initially voted against Company Town—was given the tie breaking vote. As the defender of The Right to be Cold, she of course did not vote against her own book. She reluctantly cast the vote that eliminated The Break, which she stated was her favourite book after her own. I was extremely disappointed to see this moving story about family, resilience, and healing eliminated so early in the competition, and on such a weak argument.

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You might also like these past Canada Reads contenders:

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

Birdie by Tracey Lindberg

The Cursed Queen (The Impostor Queen #2)

by Sarah Fine

ISBN 978-1-4814-4193-3

“Thyra is not an eager fighter like I am, but when she commits, she is a thing of absolute, cutting beauty, and I hunger for the sight.”

Taken as a raid prize as a child, and passed from tribe to tribe, Ansa has no idea of her origins, but she has made a place for herself among the Krigere, earning her rank as a warrior with blood and plunder. She is loyal to her chieftain, Lars, and most of all, to his daughter and heir, Thyra. Spurred by the victory Lars’ brother has won over the city of Vasterut, the Krigere set their eyes on crossing the Torden to conquer Kupari. No one truly believed the Kupari witch queen was anything other than a myth until she called down the storm that destroyed the Krigere fleet. Ansa and Thyra are among the few survivors, and Thyra will need Ansa more than ever as she fights to unite the Krigere under her leadership, even as she must convince them that they will need to change their way of life in order to survive. But with her dying breath, the witch queen cursed Ansa with ice and fire that threaten to devour her, or turn her into a weapon against the people she has claimed as her own. Her loyalty will be tested at every turn as she tries to control the curse or find a way to rid herself of it forever.

Sarah Fine’s companion novel to The Imposter Queen largely takes place simultaneous to the events in the first volume. The first three-quarters of the book retreads the same timeline, from the battle on the Motherlake/Torden and through to the fight for the Temple on the Rock. The last hundred pages of The Cursed Queen continues on past the end of the first book to set Elli and Ansa on a collision course. Known as the Soturi to the Kupari people in The Imposter Queen, they call themselves the Krigere. They largely appear as a typical invading barbarian race in the first novel, but here Sarah Fine takes the unusual step of turning to their perspective for the second installment in her series. The Krigere are divided into two groups; the warriors and the andeners. The warriors are the leaders, and they protect the andeners and go out raiding to provide for those under their care. The andeners in turn supply the warriors, crafting and repairing weapons, maintaining the camp, and caring for the children while the warriors are away raiding. Each group relies on the other for survival.

Fine sets up an interesting cultural dynamic with this system of raiders and andeners. The warriors are both men and women, and after their first raiding season, they are generally expected to make a partnership with an andener. The partner may be either male or female; what is unheard of among the Krigere is for a warrior to partner with another warrior. This poses a problem for Ansa, who is in love with Thyra. In order for them to be together, one of them would have to give up warrior status. Ansa is the natural fighter of the two of them, but the Chieftain must be a warrior. Thus Sarah Fine creates a conflict that keeps the two apart which is rooted in the Krigere culture, but does not rely on either sexism or homophobia, which I found refreshing. The situation only grows more complex when Thyra becomes Chieftain, and begins proposing changes to the Krigere way of life that Ansa has adopted so thoroughly as her own. Lars’ brother Nisse hews more closely to the old ways which Ansa has been taught to uphold, but what she does not see at first is that he values andenders for little more than their reproductive function, to replenish their diminished fighting force.

The Cursed Queen is related from Ansa’s point of view, and unfortunately I found myself more interested in getting Thyra’s perspective. Ansa has a hot temper and is always ready to fight to try to solve any problem that comes her way. Thyra is a skilled fighter, but one who prefers to think first, and pursue other options before drawing blood, so I was able to relate to her more of the two. Ansa’s confusion and divided loyalties are completely understandable, but as a result her relationship with Thyra becomes so antagonistic over the course of the book that it was hard for me to imagine them making up and getting together. I think this will need to be addressed in the final volume in order for me to really get aboard this ship. However, I am still very interested to see how Sarah Fine will bring Elli and Ansa together in The True Queen, due in in Spring 2018.

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You might also like Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

The Impostor Queen

Cover image for The Impostor Queenby Sarah Fine

ISBN 978-1-4814-4190-2

“When the magic leaves our current queen and enters you, Elli, you will become the most powerful Valtia who has ever existed.”

For three hundred years the Valtias have ruled the Kupari from the Temple on the Rock, the only wielders of the unique Kupari magic who can balance both fire and ice. The Valtia uses her magic to protect and shelter her people, but the magic exacts a terrible price, and these girl-queens die young, bodies devoured by their own terrible power. Elli has been raised in the Temple as the Saadella, heir to the Valtia, schooled in service to the Kupari people, prepared to receive the magic when the current Valtia dies. Yet despite the fact that Elli is prophesied to be the most powerful Valtia who ever lived, when her predecessor dies, the magic does not enter her, leaving the Kupari vulnerable to the increasingly hostile raids of the neighouring Soturi. Exiled to the Outlands, Elli takes shelter with a group of bandits who defy the rules of the Temple, and refuse to turn their magic wielders over to the Temple Elders. For the first time, Elli has a reason to question the order under which she was raised, bringing to light the terrible abuses of the very system which she was sworn to uphold.

The opening of the book drops the reader into Elli’s day to day life as the Saadella, a relatively slow-paced sequence that allows Sarah Fine to lay out fascinating hints about the world in which the story takes place. Elli’s point of view is naïve, but there are hints early on that all is not well with the Valtia system of rule. In general, Fine spends a lot of time on the characters and the world, and the plot doesn’t truly pick up until the outlanders begin to question Elli’s appearance in their midst, and the unusual changes her presence seems to invoke in magic wielders, such as Oskar, a brooding ice-wielder who would prefer to deny his magic, despite suffering from the consequences. However, patience with this slow approach is rewarded as the truth about the Valtias begins to come to light.

Elli is sixteen when the story opens, just as rumours begin to swirl that the current Valtia is weakening, and may soon pass her power to her heir. Elli has had a sheltered upbringing in the Temple, where she must be kept safe and pure so that she is a fit vessel to receive the Valtia’s magic when the time comes. She is even kept largely separate from the Valtia, who must devote most of her time and energy to serving her people, and maintaining the balance of her magic. Elli is instead educated for her future role by the Elders of the Temple, who put off many of her most pressing questions with the excuse that she must be kept pure. As a result, Elli is a rather immature sixteen, never having had to dress or fend for herself a day in her life until she faces her exile. All she has going for her is a deeply inculcated sense of duty, which translates into a strong work ethic when she joins the community of Outland bandits who have rejected the demands of the Temple.

As Elli begins to understand why the Valtia’s magic didn’t pass to her, she finds herself caught between prophecy and free will. The stars indeed foretold her birth, but the Elders of the Temple were not in possession of the entire prophecy. With so much already decided, it is hard for Elli to believe that she can wield what little power and knowledge she does possess to shape her fate, let alone the destiny of the Kupari. Having lived a life with little control over anything, Elli is torn between her habit of accepting her fate, and the desire to finally seize control of her own path, even as others continue to be determined to choose for her. The curiosity that the Elders ruthlessly supressed in her as Saadella comes roaring to the fore, but her questioning nature does not fit in among many of the Outlanders either, especially Sig, the fire-wielder who would prefer decisive action against the Temple at any cost.

I was engrossed by the slowly peeled back layers of the world and magic system that are unveiled as Elli sheds her sheltered upbringing and begins to understand something about the history of the Kupari magic. Although Elli was understandably immature, I enjoyed her character development as she came to terms with having the future she always expected ripped away, and then grappling with the fact that people still want to control her, and how easy it would be to let them. She is also daunted by a potential romance, after expecting to live a life of chastity in service to the Kupari people. I look forward to seeing how Sarah Fine complements this with her companion novel, The Cursed Queen, and then brings the series together with the conclusion that is due out in 2018.

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Also by Sarah Fine:
Of Metal and Wishes 

Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World

Cover image for Here We Are, Edited by Kelly JensenEdited by Kelly Jensen

ISBN 978-1-61620-586-7

“Whether you identify as a feminist now or are curious about how people come to label themselves as feminists and own that identity, these pieces will help you begin your journey through the various paths, influences, and experiences toward feminism.”

Feminism is a concept that has been loaded down with a lot of cultural baggage. This collection of essays, poems, comics, and lists pulls together a selection of pieces for a teen audience that aim to clarify misconceptions, share experiences, and reinforce empathy for a variety of journeys and perspectives. The contributors include men and women, cis and trans, from different backgrounds and social experiences, touching on everything from race, to mental health, to disability. The scrap-book style collection strikes a balance, speaking to teens at an introductory level without being condescending, while addressing everything from body image to sexuality to relationships and pop culture.

Here We Are contains enough broad variety that no doubt different pieces will speak to different readers. It is reaffirming to read about people who share your experiences, and enlightening to read about different ones. One of my personal favourites was “The Choice is Yours” by Kody Keplinger, about her long-standing decision not to have kids. Keplinger ties the expectation for women to reproduce, and the charge of selfishness against those who voluntarily do not, into the way women are socialized to put the needs of others before their own. Like Keplinger, I first said the words “I don’t want to have kids” at a fairly young age and, like Keplinger, was immediately told “You’ll change your mind.” I wish I could bookmark this essay, and put Here We Are in the hands of my twelve-year-old self, because it would have meant everything to finally hear an adult woman say that my decision was both valid and viable. To borrow another quote from Ashley Hope Pérez’s essay, “It would have changed everything, it would have changed nothing, it would have made all the difference in the world.”

Fellow book lovers will probably also strongly relate to the essay “Reading Worthy Women.” In high school, Nova Ren Suma was excited to take the popular World Humanities course. The piece chronicles her heartbreaking realization that there were no women on the syllabus, and when she stayed after class to confront her teacher, he informed her that there were no women worthy of being on his syllabus. This kicked off a five year period of rebellion, which lasted through college, during which time, outside of school, she only read books written by women because “It’s not a silly pursuit to read beyond what’s handed to you, to seek out new voices and leap over the usual books everyone’s already talking about and see what you can find on your own.” The concept of pushing the boundaries of the canon is an important one, which is also present in Brenna Clarke Gray’s piece “Choose Your Own Adventure” about fandom as a feminist act.

Book Riot editor and Stacked writer Kelly Jensen has pulled together a collection of essays representing the many and diverse facets of feminism, creating an intersectional introduction to the movement. Interspersed with the longer essays are short, fun pieces, such as feminist music playlists, a list of “Ten Amazing Scientists (Who Also Happen to Be Women)”, as well as songs, poetry, and a list of the best girl friendships in fiction. While straight-up essays are the most common type of piece, Wendy Xu’s entry “The Princess and the Witch” is in the form of a comic, and there are several interviews as well. Most of the contributions are original, though some such as Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminism: Take Two” and Amandla Stenberg’s “Don’t Cash Crop My Corn Rows” are either reproductions or adaptations of previously published material. There were only a few things I thought were notably absent, such as a piece about affirmative consent to complement the discussion of rape culture. The chapter on romance and sexuality could also have used an essay about asexuality and aromanticism. Overall, however, I was pleased with the diversity of this introduction to feminism, and would heartily recommend it.

Silence Fallen (Mercedes Thompson #10)

Cover image for Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs by Patricia Briggs

ISBN 9780425281277

“I’m a mechanic; I fix things that are broken. I turn into a thirty-five pound coyote. I have powerful friends. But when it comes right down to it, my real superpower is chaos.”

In Night Broken, Adam and Mercy declared the Tri-Cities pack territory, and a neutral zone under their protection. Since then, they have successfully defended that claim against the Fae in Fire Touched, proving that they can keep their word. But it seems the challenges are not over, because Mercy is kidnapped not far from home, and the purpose of taking her seems to be to prove the weakness of the Tri-Cities alliance. In coyote form, Mercy manages to escape her attackers, ending up alone and on the run in Europe. With their mating bond silenced by the great distance between them, Adam gathers a group of their allies, and heads to Europe in pursuit of Mercy.

For the first time, Patricia Briggs takes her characters far afield from their Tri-Cities home, with Mercy eventually finding herself in Prague, the territory of an old wolf who has a long-standing feud with the Marrok. Mercy also discovers that the Old Country is rife with ghosts, clamouring for the attention of a walker.  Briggs employs dual timelines, switching perspectives between Mercy and Adam. Briggs also used this device briefly in Frost Burned, the seventh book in the series, in which Adam and the pack disappeared, and Mercy was hunting for them. Here, however, the technique is used throughout the book, and the two timelines are not synchronized. As a result, Briggs introduces each chapter with a blurb in Mercy’s voice that clarifies when events are taking place, and how they relate to the other chapters. It is somewhat awkward, but serves well enough to keep the reader oriented, especially as Adam and Mercy converge later in the book.

Ten books into her series, Briggs has built up a large cast of secondary characters, to the point where many favourites might only be mentioned in passing in any particular volume. In this case, most of the pack and Mercy’s other friends are left behind in Washington. While Mercy is on her own in Prague meeting even more new characters, Adam must choose who to take with him to Milan to confront Mercy’s kidnapper. With the Tri-Cities now declared to be the independent territory of the Columbia Basin Pack, Adam must make his selections carefully in order to represent the new supernatural alliance to the European powers that have decided to challenge the declaration.

One of Adam’s companions for the trip is Honey, a werewolf who has been rising through the ranks since the death of her mate, and since Mercy’s arrival shook up the pack’s traditional gender dynamics, which placed female wolves at the bottom of the ladder. Marsilia, mistress of the vampire seethe, and Elizaveta, the pack’s witch on retainer, also join the delegation. Marsilia is a surprisingly gentle presence this time around, though the book deals heavily with her backstory. However, Briggs seems to be hinting at interesting developments in store for Elizaveta. Stefan, who has been largely absent for quite some time, also joins the group, which is rounded out by a goblin representative for the Fae. The private plane they charter is piloted by another goblin, with a submissive werewolf called Matt Smith as co-pilot. Briggs fits in a running joke about Smith’s name, which he shares with the actor who played the eleventh doctor on Doctor Who. This seems to be a sly nod to the title of the book, since “Silence Will Fall” was the prophecy that anchored much of Smith’s run on the show.

Silence Fallen does not move the overarching story forward so much as it explores reinforces the changes that have taken place in the last couple volumes. Sometimes the next step in a series is fairly obvious, but in this case the way forward is not clear. However, Briggs has promised both the next Alpha and Omega book—Burn Bright, 2018—and the long-awaited Moira and Tom novel before the next installment of Mercy’s saga is due out.

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You might also like Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Snow Falling on Cedars

Cover image for Snow Falling on Cedarsby David Guterson

ISBN 0-679-76402-X

“She was of this place and she was not of this place, and though she might desire to be an American, it was clear, as her mother said, that she had the face of America’s enemy and would always have such a face.”

It is 1954, and Japanese-American World War II veteran Kabuo Miyamoto has been charged with the murder of fellow fisherman and veteran Carl Heine. His trial begins in the midst of a snow storm that has struck the town of Amity Harbour, on the island of San Piedro off the coast of Washington State. Reporting on the trial is Ishmael Chambers, who inherited the small local paper from his father when he returned from the war. Carl was a solo gill-netter fisherman, and his body was pulled from the ocean, caught in his own nets, after the boat was found drifting off the coast on a foggy September morning. In the grip of the snow storm and the trial, the islanders are forced to face old grudges and deep seated prejudices as the evidence against Kabuo mounts.

Ishmael’s coverage of the trial is complicated by the fact that the accused’s wife, Hatsue, was his first love before the war, and he has never gotten over losing her. Indeed, he still entertains shameful fantasies of winning her back, even as her husband’s life hangs in the balance. Ishmael lost his arm during the war, fighting in the Pacific Theater, and it has bitterly tainted his perception of the island’s Japanese-American residents, even as he clings obsessively to his feelings for Hatsue. However, this is not the only unfinished business being raised by the trial. Before the war, the Miyamoto family had entered into a clandestine arrangement with Carl Heine’s father to purchase seven acres of strawberry land, which would be placed in Kabuo’s name once he came of age, due to the fact that first generation Japanese immigrants could not own land. But they were interned before they could finish their payments, and when Carl Sr. died while his son was away at war, his wife took the opportunity to sell the entire farm.

Snow Falling on Cedars opens on Kabuo’s trial, though it takes some pages for David Guterson to reveal what he is charged with. Indeed, it is in general a novel that peels back in slow layers, as one witness after another takes the stand, and flashbacks are interleaved with the present moment. The pacing is slow and steady. The witnesses give their testimony when their time comes to take the stand, but through the limited omniscient narrator, we are also able to see the things they are thinking about, but not saying. Some are entirely insignificant to the plot—the coroner for example, thinks about how, during the autopsy, he noticed that the deceased’s penis was much larger than his—but other omissions are much more consequential. The coroner does not mention in his testimony that he told the sheriff that the blow to Carl Heine’s head reminded him of wounds he saw delivered by kendo-trained Japanese soldiers during the war, a comment that may have primed the sheriff to suspect Miyamoto.

What fills in the slower pacing of the novel is the ambience of the Pacific Northwest island setting, despite the fact that the story takes place in the midst of an uncharacteristic snow storm. San Piedro is a fictional island that would be part of the San Juans if it existed, but it draws inspiration from Guterson’s home, Bainbridge Island, in the Puget Sound just off Seattle. Guterson pays great attention to detail as he describes both salmon fishing and strawberry farming, the two main industries on the island. The beaches and cedar forests serve as the sites of Ishmael and Hatsue’s budding but forbidden romance. What begins as innocent child’s play on the beaches must take covert shelter among the ancient trees when they become adolescents. Though fewer scenes take place there, the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar, California, feels visceral and immediate. Manzanar is the more literal incarnation of the dark undercurrent that runs beneath the more romantic, pastoral portrayal of Amity Harbour.

An obvious comparison can be made between Snow Falling on Cedars and To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel Guterson regularly taught as a high school English teacher with a budding novel in his desk drawer. But neither Nels Gudmunson, the lawyer, nor Ishmael Chambers, the journalist, is Atticus Finch, at least not as he appeared in To Kill a Mockingbird. They might perhaps be closer to the earlier incarnation of the character recently revealed in Go Set a Watchman. And the narrative is complicated by the fact that Kabuo is not obviously innocent, even though prejudice certainly played a role in his arrest. For most of the story, Kabuo refuses to speak to anyone, even his lawyer, about what really happened that night out on the water, and so the reader, too, is left in the dark, piecing together the clues along with the jury, even as we enjoy a more omniscient perspective, privy to some characters’ internal thoughts.

Snow Falling on Cedars is somewhat of a murder mystery, even though it is more ponderously paced than most pager-turners of that genre. Rather, it is more concerned with how human nature shapes such an investigation and prosecution, subtly or not so subtly dictated by preconceived notions and the weight of the past. The truth is slowly revealed, even while the reader is left with the impression of how easily it could have been buried forever.

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You might also like:

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Parable of the Sower

Cover image for The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butlerby Octavia Butler

ISBN 9780446675505

“I’ve never felt that I was making any of this up—not the name, Earthseed, not any of it. I mean, I’ve never felt that it was anything other than real: discovery rather than invention, exploration rather than creation.”

Lauren Olamina is part of the generation of children who do not remember the world before. Before the water shortages, and the walled communities, and the drug addicts who burn anything and everything just to watch the flames. Before the California-Oregon border was closed, and Alaska began to talk about seceding. Lauren believes the Earth is dying, and that sooner or later, humanity will have to take to the stars in order to survive. And Lauren means to survive. But how can she convince those around her that they must be ready, that the good times her father and step-mother talk about are never coming back? As the world outside the wall continues to crumble, Lauren hones the philosophy she believes to be humanity’s only hope, becoming the lonely prophet of a new religion born from the ashes of American civilization.

Although originally published in 1993, Parable of the Sower is set in what is now the near future, opening in the year 2024. Lauren has reluctantly submitted to being baptized into her father’s church, even though, for the past three years, she has not been a follower of his god. Rather, she has been slowly laying out the tenets of her own religious philosophy, premised on the seductive idea that God is Change. Therefore, every human action is the act of shaping God, whether deliberately, or carelessly. Lauren calls her religion Earthseed, and believes that the ultimate “destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.” Lauren makes her first attempt to articulate this new philosophy to her best friend Joanna, but is repulsed, and so returns to biding her time behind the walls of the struggling middle class neighbourhood led by her father, as the world outside continues to deteriorate.

The story is told in the style of a diary kept by Lauren as she is growing up, and beginning to hash out her ideas about the world. She is coming of age at a difficult time, and constructs and elaborate system around herself that gives her hope for the future. The early part of the novel is spent inside the walls of her disintegrating community, as her father and step-mother struggle to keep things together, unable to admit that the old world is not coming back. Lauren also pens a lot of poetic or biblical passages, painfully earnest verses that try to convey her growing ideology, and her dream of sharing it with others.  But ultimately, she cannot achieve her destiny until the cataclysm finally comes that cleaves her from her home, and she becomes a sort of traveling prophet, gathering around her a group of people who are willing to form a community based on her unusual philosophy.

The Parable of the Sower is a complex feat of world-building. Butler creates both a crumbling dystopian vision of the United States, and simultaneously incarnates Lauren’s Earthseed philosophy out of that wreckage. She slowly and carefully balances the two, first introducing the reader to Lauren’s world, and then going deeper into her protagonist’s heart and mind to reveal her unusual belief system. What becomes clear in all of this is how much the more recent surge in the popularity of dystopian fiction stands on Butler’s shoulders. More eerie still is the resonance with reality; the novel’s presidential candidate is running on the promise to make America great again. Readers of contemporary dystopian will find much that is familiar here, despite the fact that this novel is nearly twenty-five years old.
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