Julie Lawson’s The Ghost of Avalanche Mountain and Destination Gold!

Posted: May 29, 2009 in alternating narratives, children's and young adult literature, ghosts, Julie Lawson, past and present, Uncategorized

Lawson, Julie.  The Ghost of Avalanche Mountain. Toronto and New York: Stoddard Kids, 2000.

–  –  -.   Destination Gold! Victoria: Orca, 2000.

In an article published a few years ago in CCL/LCJ, I wrote about two other novels by Julie Lawson, author of White Jade Tiger, discussed in the last entry.  Now I’d like to go back to what I said then, and see if I can learn anything by comparing the three novels with each other.  the essay, “Of Solitudes and Borders: Double-Focalized Canadian Books for Children,” can be found here.

———-

In both The Ghost of Avalanche Mountain and Destination Gold! the plot alternates between events as experienced by different characters.  In Ghost, the focalizing characters are the ghost of a boy who died in an avalanche decades ago and a girl of today who wears the goldstone he wants to reclaim (with one passage focalized through the girl’s Australian aunt and one through a boy, Raven, who is her friend).  In Destination Gold, the focalizing characters are a boy, his sister, and another girl caught up in the Klondike gold rush.  For a long time in both books, the key characters remain physically separate from each other and experience quite different events without knowledge of what is happening to the others.  Thus, it’s a major point of the plot of Destination that a letter Ned writes does not reach his family, so that he and his sister Sarah don’t know where each other are, and for much of the novel, Ned and Sarah and the other girl, Catharine, are not even aware of each other’s existence.  In Ghost, meanwhile, the living Ashley and the ghost Jonathan are aware of but unable to understand each other’s life and needs until their first (and last) conversation at the novel’s climax.
But while the characters remain isolated in their separate stories, their intertwining narratives offer readers insight into their connections with each other.  Indeed, readers are able to understand what remains mysterious or confusing to the characters–and also, what their connections to each other are–as answers to questions raised by one narrative of appear in the others’ narratives.  In Destination, for instance, readers know as Ned doesn’t that his letter has never arrived–and when Ned overhears a conversation about the girl his supposed friend Montana won in a game of cards, readers will understand from earlier narratives of Catherine’s that she is in fact that girl–that there is a connection between Ned and Catharine through Montana neither will be aware of for many pages to come.

Furthermore, since readers already know from Catharine’s earlier narrative about Montana’s vicious treatment of her and her horror of him, they can understand how foolish Ned is to trust him.  In Ghost, similarly, readers can understand from Jonathan’s narrative who he is and why he is doing what he does to Ashley long before Ashley herself does–and similarly, readers know what Jonathan can’t figure out–that the raven who he knows will lead him to his prize is not a bird but a boy of that name.

In both novels, then, readers know more than the characters do, and can read their situations in ways the characters themselves cannot understand.  This creates suspense: readers can wonder when characters will realize what the readers already know, and meanwhile, enjoy worrying about what the characters’ ignorance will lead them into.
The way the different focalized charters occupy different story spaces raises the question of the degree to which the novels might be about difference.   In Robyn McCallum’s terms, do they suggest “a dialogue between two social, cultural, gendered or historical positions”?  Are they examples of what W.H. New calls “boundary rhetoric” and identfies as a feature of writing by Canadians?

The novels certainly do focus on contrasts between their characters.  The characters in Destination Gold are an optimistic male with a vision of a glorious future who trusts others too much, a pessimistic independent female fleeing an awful past who must learn to trust others more, and an uncertain dependent female who neither flees the past nor seeks the future and who must learn to be more independent and trust herself.    In Ghost, the two key characters are opposite in almost every way: they are male and female, ghost and human, orphan and possessor of a happy family, isolated from others and highly connected to them, illiterate and knowledgeable.

These differences are well worth exploring.  But before I do so, I need to repeat what I suggested earlier–that these contrasts don’t seem in any obvious way to highlight “social, cultural, gendered or historical positions.”   That these characters are rich or poor, male or female does not seem to me to engender any obvious, intentional consideration of the ways in which their gender or class influences their fate–as does in fact happen in other double-focalized novels– in, for instance, Diana Wieler’s Bad Boy or Welywn Katz’s False Face, which clearly strive to make readers think about gender and race.  There’s no doubt that a careful reading of Lawson’s novels would reveal much about ideological assumptions, but the novels themselves never obviously focus on them.  They take it for granted that the contrasts between their characters have more to do with personality and individual destiny than ideology or history.

They are, nevertheless, about difference and moving beyond difference.  The plots of both novels work most significantly to bring the characters together–not just to bring them physically together and into an awareness of each other they first lacked, but also, in doing so, to offer each other what they emotionally lacked, so that isolated people achieve connection, dependent people achieve self-governance, and so on.  The characters in both novels achieve happy endings by moving from isolation in their separate stories to participation in the one story they all share.
But in fact, not quite all.  In Destination Gold, the happy ending the central characters share is happy specifically because the villain, Montana, has been defeated and left town. Before then, the story has centered around questions of property and ownership–of supplies for the journey to the Klondike and of the claims staked after the characters get there.  Every potentially valuable possession passes through Montana’s hand, gained through deceit and trickery–but ends up happily in the possession of the characters who share the single story of the book’s conclusion.  Apparently, one can have or share ownership in the place one chooses to live in only by not being self-seeking–by displaying a willingness to share it.

Ghost focuses even more centrally on questions of property–in this case, the goldstone, which both the ghost Jonathan and the girl Ashley have claims to.  Ashley has received it as a family heirloom from her aunt.  Jonathan was present at its making, as lightning struck his grandfather while he made the stone, and has pledged to bring it back both to his grandfather and to the spirits of the mountain, whom he believes are angered by its loss.  The story ends as Ashley, buried under an avalanche caused by Jonathan and near a death that will pull her into Jonathan’s ghostly world, willingly gives up the goldstone to Jonathan, in return for reconnecting him to the rest of humanity by putting his name, previously unknown, on his gravestone.  Once more, sharing leads to connection with others–although this time, not to ownership; Ashley concludes that the goldstone “was where it belonged, where Jonathan wanted it to be.  In the snow, in the mountains, in the shadow of the glacier” (230).  The goldstone then acts as a symbol of what separates–what keeps Jonathan isolated in his half-world and connected neither to living humans nor his dead grandfather, what separates Ashley from her friends (after she accuses one of them of stealing the goldstone).
Furthermore, that separating something has much to do with the “spirits” of the mountain–the forces of nature itself, the dangerous but compelling landscape that dwarfs humans and that they need to protect themselves from in their contacts with each other.  It’s instructive that this novel also contains the story of Ashley’s friend Raven, a member of a family that falls apart who then acts in an anti-social way and defiantly leaves the communal group on a field trip in the mountains to head off on his own, an act which leads to Ashley’s near-death.  In his story as in Ashley’s and Jonathan’s, isolation leads to identification with and destruction by the vast forces of nature: like Ashley and in a different way, like Jonathan, Raven must be, and is, restored to the community, in order to be protected from the dangerous spirits that inhabit and express the essence of the natural landscape.

All of this reminds me of Earle Birney’s poem “Bushed,” in which a settler finds that the mountain he settles under is “clearly alive”:

then he knew    though the mountain slept     the winds
were shaping its peak into an arrowhead
poised

And now he could only
bar himself in and wait
for the great flint to come singing into his heart

“The great flint’ of lightning does come singing from the mountain spirits into Jonathan’s grandfather, and thus creates the goldstone that dangerously isolates individuals from their communities  “Bushed” is often cited in discussions of what Northrop Frye called “the garrison mentality”: the idea that Canadians so fear and feel dwarfed by the vast natural landscape surrounding them than they retreat behind the walls of their communities and there huddle together for safety.  Now considered to be outdated as a way of accounting for adult Canadian literature, the garrison mentality seems alive and well in Ghost of Avalanche Mountain.  The isolation of characters from each other that double focalization almost inevitably emphasizes works to support and help express support for a traditionally Canadian garrison mentality–the need to constrain individual desire in order to gain the safety of a community, and at the same time, the happy ending of a shared story.

In the light of the home-and-away pattern so central to children’s fiction, that’s not so surprising: children’s stories often send young protagonists off into the dangerous wilds in order to learn the need for the safety of home.  What’s interesting, I think, is the ways in which that pattern develops a distinctly Canadian resonance in the light of Frye’s garrison mentality–so that aspects of texts which might mean something less nuanced in another context do imply specifically Canadian meanings in the Canadian context.

The skepticism with which contemporary scholars view Frye’s garrison theories might cast doubt on that conclusion.  The theory certainly works less well for recent Canadian writing for adults than it does as a way of approaching earlier Canadian texts–ones written by immigrants new to the Canadian landscape–a landscape itself less urban and less controlled by humans than it has since become.  Why then might Frye’s theory operate as a context for contemporary writing for younger Canadians?  It might be, simply, that adults who write for children conceive of childhood and adolescence as something like being an immigrant–a stranger in a unsettlingly strange land.  But that does not account for the surprising frequency with which Canadian novels for young people move their characters from urban settings to rural ones, cottages or country houses or forests or wilds, where they face forces larger than themselves.  It seems like an especially Canadian way to figure a theme conventional in children’s literature internationally.

In this way as in others, I’d argue, Canadian children’s literature seems to represent a particularly intense version of the characteristic generic markers of children’s literature as a whole.  Just as Canadian thinking seems immersed in boundary rhetoric, so is children’s literature. It is literature written across a border–by adults but for children perceived as different enough from the adults who write for them to need to be written for differently.  It almost always therefore deals with contrasts, conflicts, and negotiations between the adult and the childlike (here in these books, the family and the wild).  In its inherent doubleness, children’s literature offers a paradigm for understanding the Canadian situation as imagined by Canadians in many different ways.  If Canadian children’s literature is a particularly intense version of these matters, then the presence of so many double-focalized texts within it may not then be so surprising

__________________

So what about all this in relation to White Jade Tiger?  My earlier thoughts on the other novels centred on what might be specifically Canadian about Lawson’s books–and I can see how I might think about White Jade Tiger that way also (although this time, in terms of Canadian ideas about multiculturalism and how they work to defang different cultures of their difference, etc.).  It’s also intriguing that both White Jade Tiger and Ghost of avalanche Mountain are about connections between past and present, involve a contemporary girl laying old ghosts to rest (male ghosts, in both caess), and center around possession of a specific object that represents a significant history and needs to be returned to its rightful hiding place as the present lays to rest the sins of the past.   And the past is laid to rest in terms of being brought to light and properly remembered–and thus rendered effectively both honored and made inoperative in terms of still affecting the present.   It’s put in its proper place.

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Comments
  1. Mary Gershon says:

    Sorry, aber das bezweifel ich ganz stark…Baer

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