Out of the Whirlwind:
A Novel

by M. T. Kelly,
208 pages,
ISBN: 0773729011

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Incompatible Canoeists
by Sharon Butala

This is a hard book to review without giving away too much of the plot: Four people who, for the most part don't much like each other, without sufficient explanation as to why, and no guns, go on what they think is a well-planned and well-equipped three-week expedition, on foot and by canoe, across the tundra along the Thelon River in the Northwest Territories.

Two of the characters, Daryl and Claire, are scientists who work in a laboratory where they do vivisection in the interests of medical research. Malcolm identifies himself as a journalist and appears to be an animal rights activist. The fourth, Billy, is an eighteen-year-old who lives in Fort Smith where the expedition begins, and is hired to "help out".

Malcolm is the enigma. Kelly plants hints, nothing more, along the way to suggest that there's a hidden under-story here, which the reader can either miss entirely or puzzle over endlessly, since Kelly gives little away. It's that Malcolm has his own agenda, not the one he's told the others-to see wildlife, maybe the migration of the caribou, and to experience raw nature- but we're not sure this is so, or exactly what his agenda is. "Nobody worried about Malcolm," Kelly tells us at the end, and that disquieting note was the one that for me lingered after I'd finished the book, and that made me go back and reread all Malcolm's speeches to dig out the clues I'd missed or forgotten in the first reading. (Unless he means merely that nobody cared about Malcolm.) Kelly also breaks up the narrative by leaving parts of scenes out and then, later, revealing what happened, a practice I found confusing.

But then, the characters and the plot seem to me not Kelly's first concern: this novel is about the land, the vast, "empty" barrenlands of the north, and their power and beauty. Humanity rings small in such a landscape; personal foibles don't matter in the end either, nor does the sizeable fund of facts about the animals, weather, and terrain of the tundra that the three men keep hitting each other over the head with. The central act of destructiveness here, a human act, is at last revealed as meaningless in the face of the eternity that is nature. Kelly speaks of "the silence of God", and what characters have a chance against that?

Kelly is at his best when he, fascinated himself, imagines an individual alone in the tundra-then his ideas feel real and right and fully imagined. With his characters he flounders; it's as if he can only go so far and then he hits a wall. But the relationship of humans to the land-there he knows the way in, and even the writing smoothes out, loses its kinks and bumps, and becomes powerful, even beautiful.

For such a small book Out of the Whirlwind has a curious and surprising weight; it's the weight of a parable. This is a The Old Man and the Sea kind of novel, without Hemingway's absolute clarity, and with, I suspect, at root, a large measure of anger at humanity, which I don't think motivated Hemingway. But nonetheless, Out of the Whirlwind is, if not a fully satisfying novel, a mighty interesting one that doesn't go away after the reader puts it down.


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