The woods begin on the other side of Trevor Ferguson's back yard in the hills above the Ottawa River. That should surprise no-one who has read his first novel, High Water Chants, or his two most recent books, The Fire Line and The Timekeeper. The woods, the sea, the weather are powerful players in them. His characters, working out their destinies on the edge of civilization, fight them and love them. Ferguson, it seems, does too.
David Guterson's house on Bainbridge Island is near the woods too, and the fishermen and farmers in his novel Snow Falling on Cedars also live on the edge. The cedar forest, the cold waters of Puget Sound, the deep snow of winter appear just as important in his story as the forces of nature are in Ferguson's work.
The stories both men tell are good yarns. They turn on death by misadventure, they have mysteries at their centres. They are concerned with good and evil, justice and injustice. In short, the similarities are striking.
But on reflection-and these are books you read quickly to find out what happens and then think about for days afterwards-the dissimilarities take on greater importance. If you're of a theorizing turn of mind, you're tempted to analyse them à la Margaret Atwood, as products of their respective countries. After a lot of struggle, justice finally triumphs in Guterson, the American, but in Ferguson, the Canadian, victory is ambivalent even when the good guys win.
I've thought that Trevor Ferguson was a good guy ever since I met him nearly twenty years ago. He is, a recent Books in Canada review says, Canada's best unknown novelist. He has published six novels, all well-received critically, but he didn't win a major prize until he won the 1996 QSPELL Hugh MacLennan Prize for fiction. After twenty-five years of writing, he now makes a living from it, but for a long time he drove cab and tended bar to make ends meet.
Guterson is the son of a friend of a friend and the word is that he's a good guy, too. But his success, unlike Ferguson's, has been sensational. Snow Falling on Cedars won the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, one of the premier prizes in the U.S. but one that doesn't usually make run-away bestsellers. Nevertheless the book has "registered the kind of paperback sales usually associated with John Grisham and Danielle Steele," according to the New York Times: more than a million copies have been sold.
Snow Falling on Cedars is the story of the trial of a Japanese-American fisherman, Kabuo Miyamoto, who is charged with murdering another fisherman, Carl Heine. The time is 1954; the place, an imaginary island due east from Victoria but in American waters. The trial provides the book's framework, as snow falls outside. Witnesses testify, remembering not only what happened at the time of Heine's death, but also how the Japanese-Americans on the island were rounded up in 1942. (Some 120,000 Japanese-Americans were interned as well as, let us not forget, 22,000 Japanese-Canadians.) This public injustice is the backdrop to a private injustice: it was then that Heine's mother cheated the Miyamoto family out of land they had been attempting to buy.
A mystery of a death at sea also lies at the heart of High Water Chants. Instead of a trial, however, the novel begins with the major characters taking to the woods on another island off the coast of British Columbia. They are seeking a hermit suspected of removing surveyors' marks for a road to a mining project.
The hermit is one of the twenty-one sons of a fisherman from Newfoundland. Morgan, the man in charge of building roads for the mining company, is another. The spirit of their only sister Gail, killed seventeen years ago, haunts the book from the beginning. Three-quarters of the way through, we learn that Morgan raped her, and then set her adrift at sea. In the end he is punished but the justice system has absolutely nothing to do with it.
A railway detective is the catalyst for the action in The Fire Line but law is no more important here than it was in High Water Chants. He wants Reed Kitchen-a railroad man whose father played chicken with him in the lights of oncoming locomotives-to check out one of his fellow workers. Once he agrees, he is sucked into further informing. What the detective really wants is information about an immigrant-smuggling ring run by a psychopath and his henchmen.
In the end, the bad guys are punished, but the punishment is not the justice of civilization. As Reed says, "There are many things here for God to damn."
The Timekeeper is peopled by kin of the psychopaths in The Fire Line. Martin Bishop, a sixteen-year-old orphan whose family's farm has been repossessed, heads north, to where private contractors are building a spur of the Great Slave railway. Hired as the timekeeper, he finds ninety-four men on the payroll, but only eighty-nine men in camp and the foreman pocketing the difference. Martin's refusal to go along with the graft makes him an outcast along with the missing five, "the Wilder Few".
Injustice is compounded near the end of the book when the foreman offers Martin a chance to win his pay back in a race driving spikes in the last hundred yards of railroad ties. Then when Martin loses (predictably since he has been starved and hounded for weeks), he is forced to agree that he lost his pay "fair and square".
Ferguson knows first-hand the world he writes about. In June 1963, aged sixteen, he left a note for his parents and headed west from Montreal. By the middle of the summer he'd made it as far as the Northwest Territories where he was signed on as a kitchen flunkey, working from 4 a.m. to midnight on the crew that really was building the railway spur to Great Slave Lake.
"Then someone found out that I could read and write English, which wasn't that common among the men there," he says, sitting in his peaceful living room forty-five minutes outside Montreal. At forty-nine, he is slight, without the heaviness that settles around the middle of many thin men as they age. He wears glasses. He has a pleasant face, a quiet manner; he is no macho dude. "They made me a timekeeper and I went from working twenty hours a day, to working an hour a day." All he had to do was keep the time sheets, and operate the radio, which left plenty of time to read: the Russians, Faulkner, Richler, MacLennan, and Callaghan.
But the experience was more than an autodidact's dream. "I came close to being killed," he says, and then recounts what became Reed Kitchen's duels with locomotives. "I was angry and frustrated about having to re-count kegs of nails in a railway car, but I set out to do it. I knew there was a big crane on rails coming down behind me, and I figured that when it got close I'd turn around and jump aboard. Only in my fury I misjudged the speed, so when I turned around it was right on top of me. That's when I learned that at least one cliché is true, that time moves more slowly in a situation like that. I went down, but there was a small voice telling me, `See if you can't grab that rail up there,' and I remember thinking, `No, I can't and there isn't time,' but the voice said, `Go ahead, try.' And I did and I was saved.
"Afterwards it was-I guess the word is sublime, or perhaps that I was in a state of grace. Death had been just that close, but here I was alive and I felt wonderful. I remember sitting thinking, if only I can keep this feeling...it was wonderful and scary. But of course it didn't last."
That was the summer he decided to be a writer. Toward the end of it, "I quit in a huff, which was completely fortuitous because about twenty minutes after I left, the RCMP showed up, sent by my parents, looking for me," he says. He had to wait in the next town for the bank to open on Monday so he could cash his pay-cheque. "I was still mad, and I was in this basic motel room, with a Gideon Bible, and I wrote in it: `I am going to be a writer. Nothing is going to stop me. I'm not going to take a job that I like because it might keep me from doing that.' And I signed it."
And that is what he's done. He stayed out west until 1970, working on the railroad and on construction crews in northern British Columbia and Alberta. By nineteen he had finished his first novel, which he says consisted of twenty or thirty long, Faulkneresque sentences. High Water Chants wasn't published, however, until 1977, when he was nearly thirty, after Dennis Lee helped him find his voice. (HarperCollins is reissuing it in March.)
There is a fine appropriateness in the fact that Ferguson's pact with himself was made in a Bible. He consciously uses language inspired by it. "It's a way of tying what is being said to the cultural background, of connecting with the overtly mythical, to underscore the connections," he says.
He uses landscape in much the same way. "It is too easy to lose touch with the fact that we are the remnants of many cultures, that we have a long history. Landscape becomes evocative of greater cords of time. I like to place my people within the larger context."
"I see the world as an extremely difficult place," he adds. "A hundred million people have died violently in this century. When things are going well, we can sometimes forget what a dreadful place this can be. When we don't deal with this evil with wisdom, it conducts itself through war.
"I'm not talking about the Devil, at least not knowingly," he continues. "There are movements, evils, which are always present, dictators, armies, totalitarians, or other individuals who would rather conduct themselves through battles than in a more civilized manner. The causes of war can often be negotiated away, but the drive for war is too great. It is a way of expressing the brutality which coexists with us all the time. War gives brutality a field of action. But brutality exists without war."
War is something that neither he nor Guterson has experienced first-hand, however. Because he was Canadian, Ferguson could spend his early manhood in the North American bush while able-bodied Americans his age wrestled with the spectre of Vietnam. Guterson, who is forty, is just enough younger to have come of age at the end of that war.
Guterson in fact has passed nearly all his life around Puget Sound, earning bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Washington in Seattle. The Northwest landscape, perhaps inevitably, has had a strong influence on his fiction. "The cycle of decay is overwhelmingly present here," he told the New York Times. "Everything human disappears in this landscape." Yet despite descriptions of sheltering cedars, fine rain, swirling snow, and the smell of strawberry fields, it is the social and political context that gives his novel its weight.
Guterson has said that Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird was a model for Snow Falling on Cedars. As a high school teacher, he regularly assigned it to his classes. "Students have a strong need for heroes of a particular type, someone who represents a set of values," he told the Times. The lawyer hero "embodies those values, and kids encounter him with a sense of relief."
And therein lies a good deal of Snow's appeal for adults too, I think. In it the treatment of Japanese-Americans is absolved: justice is done, the people involved see that they've been wrong, and readers are left with the impression that we will be wiser in the future. It is not exactly a feel-good ending, but it is close.
At the end of Ferguson's books we have no such assurance. It's not that justice is impossible, or that fairness unachievable, Ferguson says, but that they are ideals. "To see justice as an ideal is one thing, but to expect it for oneself is quite another," he says. Something to long for, in short, not to feel good about.
How Canadian, and, I would contend, how much truer to the way the world works. Not every good guy gets what he deserves. Success, like justice, is not guaranteed. Ferguson is a case in point.
A collection of Mary Soderstrom's short stories, Finding the Enemy, will be published by Oberon in the spring.