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Book Review : Entrancing Tale of Canada's Heartland

March 18, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

The Northern Lights by Howard Norman (Summit: $16.95)

Sound carries better in subzero temperatures. The voices from Quill, on an Arctic lake, travel with clarity and the unalloyed power to disturb and entrance us.

Quill, in "The Northern Lights," is a northern Manitoba settlement whose inhabitants are Cree Indians and whites from southern Canada and Europe. It is where Noah, the narrator, spends a part of his teen-age years. Its imprint is urgently upon him when, having moved to Toronto, he begins his account.

Howard Norman's novel has a displacing beauty to it. Displacing, because his story of a boy growing up in a place so strange to the lives we lead doesn't seem like news from a distant part of the world, but news from its heartland.

It is our part of the world that seems distant. For the space of this brief book, we are ready to believe that all growing up, all adolescent illusions, all farewells and all lost kingdoms have their natural origin on Quill's frozen shoreline.

In a sense, everyone in this remote reach is a castaway. No one has arrived there easily or naturally; everyone has followed a gnarled route. The Cree are natives, of course; but the marks of civilization have made them strangers, as well. And a society of castaways, like the gatherings in a wayfarer's inn in the old tales, is a society of stories. They engender this book.

Noah's reach is especially remote. He and his orphaned cousin, Charlotte, live with Mina, their mother, in a lakeside cabin so distant from Quill that the only communication is a supply plane and, eventually, a two-way radio. The latter is a kind of atonement; a present from their father, Anthony, who has brought them there to live but is away 11 months out of 12.

He is a strange, uneasy man; formerly a Toronto musician who became a cartographer--though he still carries his French-horn case--and went to work for the government survey office. In effect, he has deserted Mina and the children; she holds on as long as she can until, threatened with madness, she moves back to Toronto. Of her estrangement from Anthony, who disintegrates and eventually becomes a hermit, she tells the children:

"Whenever we learned a thing about each other, truly learned it, it became the new thing we couldn't bear to know." It is a judgment that speaks astonishingly well for all estrangements.

Life in Quill

The isolated cabin is contrast for Noah's long seasonal visits to Quill. It makes the straggly settlement into a metropolis, it opens up the adolescent's senses to take in its life as all life and to return it to us in his recollections.

His friendship with Pelly, the son of the family he stays with, is a central theme. Pelly's mother, Hettie, is a Cree; his father, Jim, is white, a woodcarver whose decoys sell in Winnipeg and Montreal. Pelly is an artist; he sketches by day and paints by night, and the entire settlement is papered with his drawings.

He is a free and magical spirit, and Noah idolizes him. When Pelly sends away for a unicycle he has seen in a catalogue, Noah spends hours on the ice coaching him in the spins and jumps he is learning so as to provide Quill with its equivalent of a circus. "I felt useful and he felt coached and the unicycle drew us together," Noah recalls.

It is a recollection in grief. No sooner does the two-way radio arrive, during one of Noah's visits home, than it transmits its first message. Hettie tells him that Pelly has fallen through the ice on his unicycle and drowned.

Loss is a filter that brings out Noah's recollections of Quill with a special poignancy. There is a hint of a Lake Wobegon in the daily life of this odd community, but without the indulgence. The poetry and the humor run far deeper. We hear of a woman whose breakdown is signaled by the wild designs she begins to make on the quilts she sews for her neighbors. After a curative stay down south, she returns and asks each recipient to give the quilt back. "That wasn't really me who made it," she says.

The Indians are an intimate part of the community and profoundly separate. Here is Noah on their conversations: "For a Cree to look directly at the person he was speaking to was considered impolite. It was best to glance around, returning to a face only now and then. In this way the landscape was invited into the conversation."

Shower of Gold

Hettie, the Cree partner in a mixed marriage, is the book's most affecting character. She is passionate and reserved; when the reserve breaks, it is a shower of gold. She talks to herself as she goes for a walk at the start of winter, and what emerges could be a chain of haiku. "Goodby, geese taking summer. Taking summer. " And: "Duck you got caught. Sudden ice. "

For months after Pelly dies, she drops kettles and utensils. Her hands feel crowded, she complains. And Jim tells Noah: "I never liked that saying: Time heals. It heals some things, but makes the rest worse just because they've gone on longer."

In the book's second part, Noah leaves Quill and joins Mina and Charlotte in Toronto, where they are preparing to reopen and run a broken-down movie house. Their adventures are engaging and well told. Noah's recollections are crowded by the new life that is opening up, by the spirited individuality of Mina and Charlotte, and by his own dawning interests. Sentimentality is avoided. The recollections of Quill are the book's shining center, and they are preserved because they will be relinquished.

This is Howard Norman's first novel. His previous published writing consisted of translations of Cree poetry. The Whiting Foundation gave him support for "The Northern Lights," and it can be proud of itself. So can Summit Books. They have helped an entirely unforeseeable book become an entirely indispensable one.

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