by Douglas Glover
LESLIE HALL PINDER`s second novel, On Double Tracks, is one of a spate of recent Canadian novels written about the Indian problem. I am thinking in particular of M. T. Kelly`s Governor Generals Awardwinning A Dream Like Mine and Joan Clark`s The Victory of Geraldine Gull (also nominated for a Governor Generals Award).
What these novels have in common is a "politically correct" attitude towards Indians, by which I mean they Plunk themselves down firmly in a feminist-left-liberal camp that is anti-white, anti- government, anti-business, anti-male, and uncritical of the Indians themselves. They are also all written by whites and have white protagonists.
By "Indian problem" I mean the problems Indians have living in a Country dominated by a generally white European Culture, or the problems whites have when they come into contact with the sad-looking remnant of what was once a robust American Indian civilization. I give these alternative constructions (and there are others) to draw attention to the fact that it is not always easy to see whose problem is being discussed and to what purpose.
In On Double Tracks, two white characters, Megan Striclan, a British Columbia lawyer in her late 30s, and Theodore Selbie, a 74-year-old judge, develop Indian problems when they clash in Court during a native land claim trial, which Megan and a white anthropologist have initiated on behalf of a band of generic, no-name-brand Indians who were swindled off their oil-rich reserve shortly before the Second World War.
Megan and Theodore are more alike than they are different. Much of the novel deals with their lives before this fateful courtroom meeting -- both Suffered childhoods with distant, domineering fathers and ineffectual mothers, both have striven to achieve successful careers that seem to them empty and unfinished, both live with comfortable, passionless partners, and neither has had children, What Pinder makes clear at the outset is that Megan and Theodore are typical neurotics. They are alienated from themselves. They have forgotten who they are in the Freudian sense of having forgotten traumatic childhood events -- or more precisely in the revisionist Freudian sense of, say, the trendy German analyst Alice Miller who seems to think we are doomed to forget whole childhoods.
One trait they had in common was that neither had any recollection of childhood, and very little of adolescence. For Megan this barrier to memory had started to shift shortly before she encountered Theodore, but for him his past was a history no longer possessed by anyone.
For both Megan and Theodore, what has happened to the Indians in this country becomes a metaphor for their own lives, and wrestling with the Indian problem becomes a therapeutic act. In trying to come to grips with what the Indians have lost (their ancestral lands, the country of their dream maps, their cultural traditions), they gain a sense of what they themselves have lost. In Megan`s case, this means that she can abandon her successful, Yuppie career in a sexist law firm, end her stale love affair, become pregnant, and discover a new spirituality among her Indian friends. For Theodore, it means mental breakdown and death by heart failure because lie simply cannot accommodate the alternative universe of native thought and the growing sense of his own misery. Pinder, a lawyer herself, is especially effective in her courtroom scenes. The ironies she manages to develop between her characters` inner and outer conflicts are wonderfully handled. What remains less convincing is Megan`s relationship with this band of Indians. (I question Pinder`s decision not to specify their tribal and linguistic affiliation -- not all Indians share the same religion and system of land use, and there is no language called "Indian.") An author has to show the reader why such and-such happens and why nothing else could have happened. By that standard, Megan`s acceptance by the Indians, her own sudden conversion to their cause, and her amazingly quick assimilation of their world-view seem forced, overly neat, and idealized. The anthropologist Hugh Brody, cited by Pinder in her acknowledgements, has given us a much clearer picture of how lengthy and uncertain this process can be in his wonderful book Maps and Dreams.
In the end, On Double Tracks is less a novel about real Indians and real legal controversy than an updated, postFreudian version of the romance of the noble savage with certain pastoral flourishes -- civilized man reinvigorating himself among the primitives. Minus the valorizing epithets, there always was a certain amount of truth to this archetype – we do become better, more complex people through the effort to understand the Other, whether this Other he a lover, a person of a different race or Culture, or even our own forgotten childhoods.