In 1960, Aladdin Oil and Gas begins construction on their Hatfield sour gas plant near the Southern Alberta town of Haultain, practically on the doorstep of the Ryders – Tom and Ella, and their children, Jeannie, Donna and Billy. "Sour" meaning the gas contains high levels of hydrogen sulfide, an extremely toxic, corrosive, and explosive gas. Almost immediately the plant malfunctions. There lies the problem for the farm next door.
Who by Fire, Fred Stenson's latest novel, is the story of the Ryders, how the Hatfield plant broke them and whether they can put the pieces back together in the end. The narrative shifts in time and place, between Aladdin's arrival in Haultain and present-day Northern Alberta, where Billy, now Bill, Ryder manages a unit at New Aladdin's oil sands upgrader at Waddens Lake, north of Fort McMurray. When Bill falls for a Native woman in the village adjacent to Waddens Lake, he is forced to question his loyalties.
Of the two narratives, Tom and Ella's is the more immediately compelling. Resource company versus community: we know this story – or, wrongly, think we do.
What's different here isn't necessarily the outcome – the odds are stacked when the government is on the company's side – but how it plays out. The novel bears witness to a time of transition before this became the established narrative, its battle lines entrenched, its sides distinct and recalcitrant. When a farmer writing a letter of complaint to his MLA might have expected him to do something about it.
The backdrop is a province also only just transforming into what we know today. When an Aladdin representative hands Tom a copy of the plant specifications, he says a copy signed by the premier was filed in Edmonton. "Yours is a farmers' government, isn't it."
"Started that way," Tom replies. "Sometimes they forget."
In the early 1960s, Tom's government is Ernest Manning's Social Credit. Social Credit might not have been as much a farmers' government as the United Farmers before it, but it was nevertheless agrarian at its base. It owed its power to farmers struggling during the Great Depression. Its downfall went hand-in-hand with Calgary's rise in influence. By 1976, Peter Lougheed's Conservatives had only two farmers in cabinet.
At novel's outset, the environmental movement is still nascent. Aladdin Hatfield is a contemporary of Silent Spring, but it takes several years for Rachel Carson's ideas to reach Haultain.
The byproduct of treating sour gas – "sweetening" it so it can be put to use – is sulphur, that element in Biblical language called brimstone. Tom mockingly calls the Hatfield plant Sulphur City and it would be difficult to not see an allusion here to some Old Testament–style wrath of God, an updated Bruegel hellscape. "Above the driveway hill, a fire leapt and twisted, like the fire in the Bible that burns without wood," Billy thinks when trouble at the plant wakes the family in the night. At times the novel reads like 1960s prairie gothic: half a litter stillborn; the coulee poisoned; a farmer crawling on all fours, gassed in his own field; a child waking in the night, his nose gushing with blood.
The novel's title is taken from the second paragraph of Unetaneh Tokef, in which God judges us: "who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire…" The Ryders might well wonder what they've done that they are being tested in this way.
The structure is the weakest point in what is otherwise an emotionally resonant, highly readable novel. The problem isn't the switching between locations or between past and present, but its inconsistent application. While the chapters set in the past go up to 1973, almost as many pages are given to the years 1960–62 as to all the present day. That makes the four chapters for the intervening years seem out of place, the shifts in character and family dynamic, abrupt. As for setting, the chapters that take place at the Ryder farm, which are also those that track the unraveling of the Ryder marriage, are frontloaded towards the beginning of the novel.
The combined effect is the reader forms an early attachment to Tom and Ella, less of one to adult Bill, even though it is shattered, reeling Bill who offers the greatest insight into how the petroleum industry has changed and how it has stayed the same. It is Bill who bears the greatest marks of his family's trauma and who has the greatest potential to set his family aright.
This criticism is, however, a small one in the context of a well-researched and compelling narrative about the price paid in our complex relationship with an industry on which we are now dependent.
Jade Colbert is a regular contributor to The Globe.