Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reader's Diary #739- Margaret Hutchison: Tamarac

When people lament CanLit as being too preoccupied with landscape and weather, too depressing and serious, I often wonder which authors they have in mind. No one, it seems, wants to name names. After reading Tamarac, I'd venture to guess they mean Margaret Hutchison. But that seems rather unlikely seeing as the book is out of print and she's so far lost in CanLit obscurity even Wikipedia has ignored her (and me too, but that's a beef for another day).

Set in the fictional mining town of Tamarac, somewhere in the British Columbian mountains just prior to World War II, Tamarac revolves around a young teacher named Janet. Janet, it is clear, has some fond memories of Tamarac but for the most part felt oppressed by it-- by its people (including her family), by its economy, and by its time in history. Whether it was intentional or not, Hutchison makes the reader feel equally oppressed. Janet's dreams, and indeed the dreams of those around her, go unfulfilled. But don't look for any lessons in there about things turning out for the better, if there is any message at all beyond "life sucks, but at least the trees are pretty" its that life cares not a whit about what you want, whether you're practical or full of imagination and hope.

The characters, too, are always so full of grandiose speeches and profound philosophies. It's like a novel full of Anne Shirleys. Anne Shirleys without the optimism, at that.
"Ants," said Kenneth, "the perfect organization; the unchanging perfectionists. I suppose that's what we all think we want, sometimes. I wonder if they know they're getting old."
Who talks like that?

I'll give the book credit for two things:

1. As Tamarac, thankfully shuts down and is deserted with the mine closure, I was reminded of a brilliant interactive documentary by Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons (collectively known as the Goggles) for the National Film Board of Canada. Called "Welcome to Pine Point" they document the short life of a mining town called Pine Point. Pine Point, a former Northwest Territories town, lasted roughly long enough for one generation to pass through the school system. Then the town closed and dismantled. Their documentary captures what I believe Hutchison was going for in her book but didn't. You really should check it out.

2. For all the overwhelming depressing-ness that is Tamarac, it actually made me feel better about the times we live in. Listening to the news everyday, I was just about ready to stand on the corner of Franklin Avenue waving my "The End is Nigh" placard. But even if we were headed toward a depression and a world war, Tamarac is at least a good reminder that the country survived it before. There now, those 282 pages seem almost worth it.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I think I'll watch the NFB doc instead. There's no need for all of us to stand on street corners proclaiming that the end is near.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: It's an interactive doc, so one doesn't simply watch. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it afterwards!