‘In a Wide Country’ by Robert Everett-Green

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Shawn Syms

Growing up is hard to do, at the best of times. Even more so when home, family and identity itself all seem inscrutable and precarious. Twelve-year-old Jasper, the central character of Robert Everett-Green’s charming and thoughtful debut novel In a Wide Country, finds himself unexpectedly spirited away from Winnipeg by his wildly independent single mother Corinne in a white Corvair. They spend the summer of 1961 westward bound with no specific destination, roaming from hotel rooms to relatives’ farmhouses. For Jasper, the resultant journey is more than a coming of age—it’s a coming to terms with both the world at large and the father he never knew.

Despite somewhat languid pacing and plot development, In a Wide Country is a provocative exploration of masculine identity formation, and the precious and painful transition from the world of childhood to that of adults. Jasper never knew his father, who “died in a bush plane,” though the time of year, weather and other circumstances of his mortal fate change each time Corinne tells her son the story—and each time he repeats it to others, as social circumstances dictate.

This narrative is far more palatable than the small-town gossip that the boy was “born out of wedlock,” rumours that Corinne fled her rural roots to escape. Named Karen by her parents, she rechristened herself when she left her hometown of Chokecherry Bush, and established a new identity. She was no longer a farmer’s daughter, but a sophisticated fashion model—though most often of lingerie.

But stability is elusive for Corinne, and therefore Jasper. Seeking to evade commitment to well-heeled businessman Dean, who gave her the Corvair and wanted to follow it up with an engagement ring, Corinne optimistically announces a sudden road trip:

“Jasper, I want this to be our best summer ever. It can be, for both of us. We can do whatever we want.” She searched my face for agreement. “Do you understand? Let’s forget about how it started, and begin again, from right now.”

Everett-Green is a feature writer for the Globe and Mail, and in this first novel, his use of description is subtle yet adept. Through references to TV dinners, transistor radios and the standing ashtray in a cinema, the author does a nice job of setting the story in time, place and socio-economic context without hitting readers over the head.

Descriptive passages sketch out the passing landscape while carrying thematic import at the same time, particularly when it comes to transitions from the city to the places inhabited by “country people.” Jasper knows his origins with rural folk, but resists easy identification: “I hated baths, but country people, especially country men, had a relationship with grime I couldn’t fathom.”

We drove until the traffic thinned out and the city disappeared behind us. In the field beyond the weedy ditch on my side, the wide skeletal arms of a cultivating machine dragged their harrows through the dirt. In the distance, I could see the shape of a grain elevator, which for me indicated where measured city time ended and endless country time began.

Though mother and son meander at length but ultimately settle in Vancouver, where they go feels less important than what happens there. Corinne uses her instincts and talents to take care of them both. They visit relatives and friends, and when cash is tight, she teaches Jasper how to dine and dash. During a stop at Chokecherry Bush, twelve-year-old Jasper is introduced to sexual pleasures by an older girl named Ginette. After they engage in acts for which Jasper doesn’t even have a name, she sets her stringent expectations regarding secrecy: “If you ever tell, I’ll kill you.”

Midway through their journey, Corinne befriends Nick and Jackie. Jackie is a fellow model to whom she bares a striking resemblance; Nick is a blind telemarketer who engages Jasper to accompany him to movies to describe the visuals. Mother and son stay a while, and Jasper meets another older girl: Marsha, the daughter of Chinese astronomer Dr. Suan; Jasper fakes an interest in astronomy to get her attention. Dr. Suan drinks to excess, not unlike Corinne’s Winnipeg beau Dean; it seems that Jasper cannot find an uncomplicated male role model no matter where he goes.

To Jasper, Dr. Suan’s wife “seemed much more Chinese” than her husband; as it turns out, she is from Hong Kong and he hails from Medicine Hat. As Jasper explains to his younger neighbour Dwayne the difference between the newcomer mother and acculturated daughter, “She’s not a chink… but her mother is.” Jasper and Corinne’s interactions with the affluent Suans offer a sensitive depiction of friendship and infatuation across complex lines of race and class privilege. And more generally, In a Wide Country explores the implications of power dynamics and inequities. While Corinne shoplifts compulsively as a way to assert greater control over her life, Jasper rebels from his position as a child surrounded and controlled by adults through bullying little Dwayne: “I often played a little too rough with Dwayne. Something about him gave a sneaky part of myself permission to hurt him.”

Everett-Green has succeeded in crafting a pre-teen protagonist who readers will care about; Jasper is precocious without being annoying. A satisfying read and a strong debut, In a Wide Country asks many questions without providing easy answers.

Cormorant Books │ 330 pages │ $22.95 │ paper │ ISBN #978-1770865006

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Shawn Syms

Shawn Syms is an Associate Editor of the Winnipeg Review.