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May 8, 2017

Delicate Things Are Suffering

It rained this weekend, after raining all week, and I took the train east to Kingston to see Lake Ontario creeping up onto the shore, lapping the feet of picnic tables and swelling around metal garbage cans. Away from the shore, farmer’s fields had turned into small lakes of their own, trees and fence-posts standing in the water. It was strange to be reading this book not long after Margaret Drabble’s latest, The Dark Flood Rising, such concerns also present in two other books I’ve been reading lately, both short story collections, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s This Accident of Being Lost and Carleigh Baker’s Bad Endings.

In Simpson’s book, a collection of songs and stories that follow on Islands of Decolonial Love, which I read awhile back, Lake Ontario features as a character—“We call the lake Chi’Niibish, which means big water, and we share this brilliant peacemaker with the Mohawks….”

She is full, too full, and she’s tipsy from the birth control pills, the plastics, the sewage, and the contraband that washes into her no matter what. She is too full and overflowing and no one saw this coming like no one saw Calgary flooding, even though every single one of us should have.

In this story, “Big Water,” the lake is over-spilling its banks, drinking up the city. The beginning of a re-creation story, as  flood stories often are. The people in the city are trying to understand what is happening, but “the predictors are being fed a string of variables in which they can only predict unpredictability.”

Things are on the edge, askew, as they are in every story in Carleigh Baker’s debut collection, which features rushing rivers and waves splashing on the shore—not to mention an epigraph by Lee Maracle, “Fish is the hub of all our memories,” which reminded me of Zoe Todd’s Walrus Talk on Fish and Indigenous Law (“…fish in my home territory are political agents embedded in complex relations with human and more than human beings”). Although it’s the plight of bees that feature even more predominantly in this collection, the perilousness of the specie’s situation, the mystery of colony collapse disorder. “Delicate things are suffering,” is a line from “Grey Water,” the one story in this collection that is actually about drought, beside the ocean, no less, that wild and fantastic body of water, and we see the irony of the situation.  So too when a leaky toilet sends water rushing through the house, down the walls, pooling in the light fixtures. But not a drop to drink.

Chi’Niibish in Simpson’s story is that rare thing, a lake capable of sending text messages, but this connection between the land and technology is not so rare in either of these books. In fact, it’s a disregard for this connection that has allowed the delicate things to suffer. The stories in Baker’s book are very urban, set in Vancouver for the most part and the characters who venture into nature find themselves strangers in a strange land—a young woman not long out of rehab who finds herself catching salmon whose eggs will be harvested to ensure the species survival; the character who leaves her job at Wal-Mart to work on an apiary; the couples on a midnight mountain hike in the Yukon during the solstice; the unhappy couple on a canoe trip just past the Arctic Circle. This last one from the story, “Moosehide,” which has the most perfect ending, which is also the perfect ending to the book. Because bad endings make for good endings, story-wise, leaving possibilities open, the characters on the cusp of something, always something around the next corner, a blessing and a curse.

“….and we almost always survive” concludes the final sentence in Simpson’s “Big Water,” underlining the ways in which modern Indigenous stories are so often ones of resilience and survival. Not a good ending, necessarily, because why should they have to be, and the only thing worse would be if they weren’t, but still, here they are. In “Plight,” characters begin tapping maple trees in an upper-class neighbourhood, the kind of place where “they get organic, local vegetables delivered to their doors twice weekly, in addition to going to the farmers’ market on Saturday.” The narrators tell us, “We know how to do this so they’ll be into it… Let them bask in the plight of the Native people so they can feel self-righteous.” In “Doing the Right Thing,” an Indigenous woman enrolls in a gun safety class packed with rednecks. In “Akiden Boreal,” a woman relinquishes everything to connect with the land of her ancestors. In “Circles Upon Circles,” a family takes its children to harvest wild race and must face the wrath of racist cottagers.

As seems fitting in a book in which a lake is capable of texting, these are also stories of selfies, hashtags and Instagram feeds. In “22.5 Minutes,” a character attempts to divert herself from thoughts of love with a list of diversions, including, “Kate Middleton” and “I’ve Never Not Once Gotten Along With People Named Rachel.” In “Coffee,” another counts down to the moment she’ll be meeting someone she’s developed a relationship with online. And “Situation Update” is a collection of reports from a moment resembling the Alberta Floods of 2013. “Banff is flooding in the middle of summer because of global warming and probably this is the new reality.”

Which brings me back to all the water, the rain and the fish. Everything is connected, as the stories in both these works demonstrate. The end connected to the beginning, even, or at least the beginning of something new.

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