A lot of young Canadian writers are loath to include in their stories themes that are (rightly or wrongly) associated with CanLit. They have been brandished for so long that we recoil when we see them, plastered on course syllabi and jacket covers like a marquee announcing a title fight: Urban vs. Rural. Humans vs. Nature. Jesse Ruddock’s debut novel, Shot-Blue, stands out because on the face of it she seems to be doing the opposite and unabashedly embracing Canadiana par excellence: the North.
The North has been an inspiration for many Canadian writers and artists, but what is often depicted or dreamed of is land that is remote, uncharted and uninhabited. Yes, a majority of the country’s population lives within a short drive of the United States border, but what is often ignored is the history of indigenous peoples in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut—real places that constitute the real North. Of course, North doesn’t always refer to these places and it can mean different things to different people. It can be a direction or a destination. It can refer to Iqaluit or Churchill just as it can to Barrie or, to some, Eglinton. It is this ambiguity which lends itself so easily to the idea of a North that is synonymous with the mythology conveyed by a Lawren Harris painting. The musician Glenn Gould was fascinated by the mythology of the North. In his documentary “The Idea of North,” he says:
“I’ve long been intrigued by the incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our country. I’ve read about it, written about it, and even pulled up my parka once and gone there. Yet like all but a very few Canadians I’ve had no real experience of the North. I’ve remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North has remained for me a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid.”
It’s sort of a “sorry not sorry” in only the way Gould as the consummate Torontonian could deliver: admitting he knows little of the North but refusing to relinquish the power of its mythology in favour of its reality.
Although Ruddock sets her story (and here I’m quoting from the back cover) “on a lake that borders the unchannelled North—remote, nearly inhospitable,” she isn’t guilelessly falling prey to any sort of mythologized North. (Even though the same can’t be said of the image of dancing Northern Lights on the book’s cover.) Nor is she relying on the reader’s unconscious associations of the North to convey the isolation, desperation and brutality of her characters. They would be just as alone in downtown Toronto as they would in northern Manitoba.
Shot-Blue is a story of a young single mother, Rachel, who cares for her son on a set of islands in a remote land and whose determined self-reliance has her avoiding the few people with whom she comes into contact. When her son, Tristan, is left to care for himself, he is forced to confront the people his mother avoided, while working at a resort for vacationing southerners, a complex that stands on the ground where he once lived in a cabin with his mother. Here he works, fights and possibly loves. He becomes the object of affection for Tomasin, who works with Tristan on the island. She tells her friend that she wants to know him, that there must be more to him than she’s able to observe, but her attempts are frustrated by her inability to fully break through Tristan’s closed-off exterior. He’s surely affected by the separation from his mother, but he can also seem dim or obtuse. This is not to say he’s entirely imperceptive or unaware. He’s enigmatic and, for the reader, unforgettable, the kind of character you continue thinking of long after you finish the book.
The story begins with a move from Rachel and Tristan’s trailer to a boarding house in town, where a friend offers Rachel a cabin on Treble Island where she can raise her son. They board a boat carrying passengers between the islands, presumably to take up the offer, but when the boat docks at Treble Island and the other passengers get off, Rachel tells the man driving the water taxi to head to a different island, where she and Tristan take up residence in the abandoned cabin that once belonged to her father.
Ruddock’s skill is in not leaning too heavily on the ambiguous northern setting to convey the isolation and loneliness of her characters. Rachel, who tries so hard to be alone, is somehow never satisfied with her isolation and finds that even “dreaming is exhausting.” If she seems insatiable it may be because her loneliness requires other people, if only to mark the distance between her and them. It feels good to find company when you want it and spurn advances when you don’t. For this reason, she’s become grateful for the nights she works, work she’s been doing since she was fifteen and which she doesn’t think of as selling sex. “At fifteen, she had no other way to get money.” And presumably not much has changed.
Her son, Tristan, equally prefers to be alone, staring at the flame of an oil lamp or sitting on the dock watching the water, but he is ultimately dependent on his mother to tell him where to go or what to do. When near the end of Book One an illness forces them back to Treble Island, the story shifts away from Rachel and it becomes clear that this is a story about Tristan and his crushingly sad attempts to find some anchor without his mother. His dependence on her has left him unwilling or possibly unable to make any decisions without someone else making them for him.
Through nothing of his own doing, Tristan eventually returns to the island where he and his mother once lived, to work at a newly constructed resort. Here he finds other boys who are brazen, full of testosterone and eager to fight each other in their spare time. When Tristan is roped into fighting, he’s completely submissive. Ruddock shows restraint in these passages that is, unfortunately, not employed elsewhere in the novel. The reader is just as confused as the other boys as to why Tristan won’t fight back. The only thing both he and the readers feel are the bruises and cuts on his lip, the hard fall on the packed earth. It’s not clear whether he’s reluctant to act or simply unable. Not knowing only strengthens these scenes and his character as a whole. Too often, Ruddock is guilty of over-explaining her characters’ motives or thoughts, as though she lacks confidence in her own writing to convey these things without directly describing them.
This tendency leads to another problem. Late in Book Two, the story shifts focus again, this time to Tomasin, who has grown close to Tristan. But this shift doesn’t feel as natural as the one from Rachel to her son in Part One. Much of Tristan’s character depends on others around him, and so when a rift comes between him and Tomasin, he’s left without anyone to draw him into the plot. Sometimes a character’s story finds its natural end, and this seems to be it for Tristan. But Ruddock doesn’t end the book here. Instead, Tristan is pushed aside and Tomasin (along with other, newly introduced characters) assumes a stronger focal point in the book’s final section. It could be that by continuing the story with Tristan at the edges, Ruddock is saying that he lacks his mother’s social dimension in isolation and that he can be more alone than her.
When the book finally concludes, it’s a relief to find it’s an ending that belongs to Tristan. And though it could have had the same resonance without some of the intervening plotlines, it is faithful to the complexity and ambiguity of his character without trying to solve any of it.
Coach House | 240 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN 9781552453407