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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.

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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

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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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Godfrey, Martyn.  Alien War Games.  Richmond hill, ON:  Scholastic TAB, 1984

This is the third book I’ve read which describes an encounter of people from earth and an alien civilization in terms of alternating narratives, one human, the other alien; the other two, both discussed in earlier entries on this blog,  are Bruce Coville’s I Was a Sixth Grade Alien and Pamela Service’s Under Alien Stars.  The first two both involve aliens coming to earth, and deal with questions of how earthlings will deal with knowledge of a wider culture out there amongst the stars (although admittedly, that’s sort of buried by the front-and-centre opportunities for jokes and such in Coville and therefore only minimally significant).   But in this one, earthlings have come to an alien planet–which, intriguingly, puts the earth people in the position of being the colonizers and invaders.

In Coville and Service,  young people of both species turn out to have more in common than they first supposed, and are able, through their friendship and working together, to move past the potential disputes and disagreements of their elders.  And in both, that leads to great co-operation between two alien peoples, but also makes the human earthlings a smaller and less advanced partner in an interplanetary civilization–a necessary accepter of colonization by as more powerful group.  And for all the talk of equality and the movement of the plot from feelings of alien difference to acceptance of a basic shared similarity, it’s clear in both cases that the aliens retain the power and the humans must to some extent at least bend to their will (but of course, only after the events of the novel have revealed their basic core of recognizable and humane humanity).  In other words, allowing Us to recognize Them as being like Us allows Them to rightfully maintain power over Us and attempt to make Us ore like Them.  As I pointed out in my entry on Under Alien Stars, the colonialist implications of this are pretty obvious.  as all of that happens, furthermore, it’s clear that the apparent dialogue implied by the presence of two narrative focalizations is an illusion, and actually a bit of scam.  It’s obviously the human beings that readers will be more prone to identfiy with; and while the aliens learn to respect humans more than they did, the more significant message for human readers related to what the humans in the novel learn.

But what happens when the situation is reversed? Alien War Games begins with a prologue from the point of view of the central alien character, which means that the first sentence “The aliens have come,” refers ironically to the landing of Earth people, as viewed by outsiders.  That seems an invitation to identify first with this alien character, Darsa; and once the human protagonist, Gravis, is introduced, and turns out to be self-centred, petulant, and prone to racist assumptions about the aliens whom we already know are undeserving of his prejudice, the sense is confirmed that it’s the aliens whose side readers are likely to be on.  Sure enough, Darsa turns out to be strong, brave, selfless, etc., etc.–a perfectly identifiable-with heroine; and Gravis just continues to be a malevolent jerk who deserves and eventually gets his comeuppance.   So this novel, despite or because of its alternating focalizations, is as even more obviously one-sided than the other two novels; but, it;’s one-sided in favour of the aliens, who are more humane, and against the vicious, racist, human colonizers.

That’s significant, I think,  because the alien civilization readers are being invited to identify with and admire is described in terms that make it share many of the characteristics of North American aboriginal cultures, and because the relationships between the aliens and the earthlings are made to sound very much like those between aboriginal people and European colonists.  I suggested in my entry on Under Alien Stars that that novel might be read in terms of whiter/aborginal relationships; in this case that sort of reading seems almost unavoidable.   Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the author is Canadian; and the novel seems to replicate the themes and conclusions of many of the books I discussed in my essay on Canadian novels for young people with alternating narratives involving white and Aboriginal characters.   It identifies aboriginality with an understanding of the earth (or in this case, the home planet) and a cultural commitment to it.  It centrally involves disputes over land and where the natives will end up living and under whose control.   Gravis’s father tells him, “They’re pretty primitive, hunting and gathering most of their food.  We’re in the process of moving them onto specified homelands, so they won’t be much of a bother in the future”; and also, :”they do seem to be a simple and jovial people.”  All of this, and the implied identification with this alien species I discussed earlier, is bound to invite readers to identify with the aliens and perceive aboriginal values and lifestyles as superior to those of the conquering colonialist earth forces and their imperialist arrogance.

On the other hand, however, the earth forces are indeed more powerful, so that a tragedy of being conquered seems almost inevitable.  The novel does, however offer a way out of that, albeit very minimally–a friend of Darsa’s, who seems throughout to be the white Indian, the red apple who wants to learn the invader’s ways, become like them, and join the big world beyond (like the characters in the other two alien novels).  Throughout, that’s made to seem like a bad choice–Gravis, who befriends this character, makes it clear in his sections that he’s only using him to delude him, and Darsa, whom we admire, is constantly trying to talk him out of his co-option by the colonists.  But at the end, it turns out it was all a trick he was playing, to get the goods on the evil Gravis and reveal his underhandedness to more sympathetic earthlings, who will, we are told at the end, thus respect the alien culture more and work to treat them more fairly.  Just how that more fair treatment will not involve their gradual absorption into them or powerful colonial culture is not made clear, or indeed, even a subject that’s raised.   So once more, as in the other two alien novels, young readers are asked to identify with an underdog group doomed to become as much as possible like its other–but only after that other understands and adopts the underdog’s group better understanding of how to live in nature  and be at one with the planet.  Once everyone adopts what is understood as aboriginality, then the aboriginals can join the mainstream and be at one with powerful people who have co-opted and transformed their values into something less alien.  This is a pattern so prevalent in discourse by white North Americans about aborginals as to be almost universally present in all the alternating narrative novels with aborignal concerns.

What I’d like to do now is take a look at the books on aboriginality I listed in my last entry and see if I can begin to do some organizing of my thinking about them. I can do that by going through my various blog entries and notes on them and seeing if I can identify any ongoing themes in them or repeating ideas of my own about them.

In my published essay on the Canadian novels, I focused on the idea that property played a central role in the novels–that traditional objects or parcels of land were in dispute, and that the possession of them at the end of the novel implied a symbolic solution to questions of native land claims in the political world of real-life Canada outside the novels. A number of threads become intertwined in this matter: among them, the relationship between aboriginal cultures and mainstream ideas about multiculturalism, and how that affects ideas about the significance of the past in the lives of people in the present (offiucal multiculturalism in Canada often involves a celebration of heritage as what one has come from but left behind in another place, an idea not stretchable to include aboriginal peoples, whose originating place is their own and everyone else’s current place also. There are also questions about the use of aboriginality in relation to environmental and ecological concerns–the ideas of native spirituality as a celebration of the earth and such.

Property then, and the associated questions about the current status of aboriginality might be key issues in other novels. Among ones I haven’t yet discussed in my earlier essay, Welwyn Katz’s Out of the Dark and Martha Brook’s The Bone Dance, seem most interesting, and for opposite reasons. Out of the Dark involves two focalized characters in two different time periods coming to a new places and dealing with the natives there, while Bone Dance‘s two focalizing characters are of mixed race, and both partially aboriginal. The American novel that comes closest to echoing the property concerns of these Canadian books is Lisa Ketchum’s Where the Great Hawk Flies, since it involves a dispute over who ought to be allowed to live in the community it is set in, and, like Bone Dance, requires its focalizing characters to come to terms with the value of traditional aboriginal culture. It might be that the novel’s conclusions about such matters might represent an American way of dealing with them as opposed to a Canadian one. Also, questions about how aboriginality becomes connected with traditions past and over arise, in Canadian books like False Face, Out of the Dark, Bone Dance, Clark’s The Hand of Robin Squires, etc. and in others like Virginia Frances Schwartz’s Initiation (american/Canadian?), Bebe Faas Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth, (American) Greg Jackson-Davis’s Digging for Philip (Canadian), and David Hill’s Treasure Deep (from New Zealand).

The Canadian books I discussed earlier significantly involved questions of borders, and thus I could suggest that they took part in what W.H. New calls the “boundary rhetoric” prevalent in Canadian writing, an interest in the borders between people and the ways they might be crossed. By and large, most novels with alternating narratives inevitably imply in their differing versions of similar events an interest in that kind of concern. The question, then, is whether or not the border rhetoric in alternating narratives for young people has a specific resonance in a Canadian context: or can books of this sort set outside of Canada be read in much the same way? They might, simply because, as a literature always aware of the borders its mere existence draws between young people and adults, literature for young people is equally involved with boundary rhetoric. I could explore these matters in terms of aboriginality in books that involve alternating white and aboriginal focalizing characters: Joseph Bruchac’s The Arrow Over the Door and Sacajawea, and once more, Where the Great Hawk Flies, two that involve a white girl showing the way to an aboriginal boy: Monica Hughes’s Log Jam (a Canadian book) and Bebe Faas Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth (an American one; and one that involves an aboriginal girl showing the way to a white boy: William Mayne’s Drift.

A lot of these books involve writers of European descent using focalizing characters who are aboriginal, and so raise questions about voice appropriation: what happens when writers try to show the world as viewed by people of cultural backgrounds different from their own? In alternating narrative questions like that inevitably relate to a key concern raised by alternating narratives generally: do they really offer alternate versions of reality, or is there something inherently one-sided about them? Does one side always win, or are there genuine compromises and/or acceptances of ongoing difference? In order to discuss these matters, I can look at books about relationships between white and Indian characters that are in fact monological–focalized through just one of the two central characters. These would include Digging for Philip, Treasure Deep, Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens and The Curse of the Viking Grave, John Craig’s No Word for Goodbye, and Ted Stenhouse’s Across the Steel River and The Dirty Deed, all focalized from a white point of view; and Lee Maracle’s Will’s Garden, focalized from an aboriginal point of view. I might here also want to take a look at book with alternating narratives where the central characters are both aboriginal: Bruchac’s Children of the Longhouse, Michael Dorris’s Morning Girl, Virginia Frances Schwartz’s Initiation, and John Smelcer’s The Trap. Here I might also want to look at some adult novels: Richard Wagamese’s Keeper ‘N Me and Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road. (and his new, related novel, Through Black Spruce, which also has alternating narratives but which I haven’t read yet).

Finally, I think, i’d like to look at Terry Patchett’s Nation, a novel which engages all these differing threads in terms of an aboriginal culture invented by the white author–and how it reveals the ongoing persistence of the various ideological assumptions about aboriginality made by the other white writers I’ve been looking at here–and perhaps, undermines them?