ACCORDING TO W. I Keith in The Canadian Encyclopedia (1985 edition), Charles G. D. Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton between them created "the one native Canadian art form," the animal story. However, there are signs that a second "native Canadian art form" has emerged in the writings of Wayland Drew, a 56-year-old high school teacher and increasingly prolific writer in Bracebridge, Ontario. This new art form is, I submit, the "environmental novel," a form of fiction in which the state of the characters' environment is the principal raison d'etre of the story. Drew published his first environmental novel with Anansi in 1973. Titled The Wabeno Feast, it contains the seeds of his later novels in its depiction of a society in decline from a state of harmony with nature into over-civilization, and whose salvation lies in a return to an unpolluted state.
By 1986, Drew had published the third volume of his science-fiction series, the Erthring Cycle (individual titles: The Memoirs of Alcheringia, 1984; The Gaian Erpedient, 1985; The Master of Norriya, 1986). At the time, I was reviewing paperbacks for CBC radio. The Erthring Cycle was, I declared (in broad daylight and in more or less full possession of all remaining faculties), the Great Canadian Novel at last. All three books were outstanding for their important and gripping stories, their fluent prose, and the fact that only a Canadian could have written them (and besides, they were published in mass market paperback by Ballantine Books of New York, which made them an irresistible choice right there).
Now, however, Wayland Drew has produced yet another environmental novel that is good enough to be a contender in anyone's "outstanding novel" stakes. Halfway Man also has the advantage of being more accessible than some of Drew's previous work, for in place of theshifting viewpoints that he favoured in the past, this story is told in the first person. The narrator, Travis Nikigwun, is an Ojibwa from the village of Neyashing, on the Lake Superior shore. He's a university graduate who works as a labourer in seasonal jobs because, as he says, "I don't want money, I want space.... I need to go back into the bush, sometimes for a few days, a few weeks." His white lover, Jenny, teaches school in Thunder Bay and visits him on weekends. Travis wants a, child, but fear of the future holds Jenny back:
The packsack she carried off the train every Friday night was full of mail, and over the weekend she would read every brochure from her organizations. She belonged to groups concerned about beluga whales ... and ... gyrfalcons ... and wolves ... and wastes and toxins ... and acid rain.... She would read everything, drawing up into a fetal position and pulling her big sweater down over her knees ... usually she said nothing at all, just read herself into rage or depression.
Travis, on the other hand, has decided to become an as tronomer. During a youthful spree in Duluth he bought a telescope for $200 at a pawn shop and it has helped him maintain a sense of proportion ever since. "I am going to give you a story with a soul," he tells a group of children eager to learn the lore of their elders. Travis's stories are About the land, how it changes and grows and is full of mystery, "because the land is Spirit." Each is a parable, which teaches as it entertains. And so, too, is this novel. In it, Drew writes with greater skill and feeling than ever before, with a strongly optimistic vision of an old culture in a still older land and how the two, living together as one, form a model for all human societies. The novel's plot is simple: when a developer plans a world-class resort at Neyashing, the wily Travis kidnaps him and takes him on a journey through the wilderness, gambling that the experience will demonstrate there are more important things in life than making money. Mean while, Drew is out to prove the very same thing to his readers. He accomplishes this with so much grace that Halfway Man itself becomes a "story with a soul." Certainly, the time is ripe for the emergence of "the environmental novel"; it also looks as if the time is ripe for Wayland Drew.