On its dust jacket, this book is classified as memoir/sports, but as David Adams Richards takes pains to point out, his way of hunting has very little to do with sports. The way he sees it, a sport hunter seeks pleasure in killing animals and will often favour trophy hunting over hunting to fill the pot for winter.
But for Richards and his people, hunting is a way of life. Facing the Hunter is stuffed with hunting stories, and although animals sometimes die in these stories, it's a far cry from the usual bang 'em, hang 'em fare in men's hunting magazines.
I read this book as a sort of oral history that an old hunting guide might have recounted while walking into the Miramichi Valley. These stories are often fragmented, and yet, as a raconteur, Richards is truly inspired. He walks by a landmark and is reminded of a big buck that wandered within a stone's throw, or a groggy bear that sauntered by.
Some of his narratives are no more than a sentence long, some much longer. One such story begins 10 years before a new logging road had been built near a favourite hunting camp: "So it was the old land of our ancestors still, people who had worked these roads and streams for lumber barons from the old days, and took moose and caribou for the lumbermen, and cut with axe and saw, and hauled wood by horse and two-sled. All of that age was an age ago the night I visited my brother. … The men who lived so much in hope and hardship were gone, ghosts from another era."
The woods are haunted by Richards's tribal ancestors, who in some cases came to New Brunswick three centuries ago. I say "tribal" because Richards is so firmly rooted in the Miramichi Valley that he can't help seeing himself as native to a usurped land. "The world no longer belongs to us. In so many ways, we are now in the same position the first nations people found themselves in. Thinking this, and multiplying it a thousand times, we might begin to realize the tragedy that occurred here four hundred years ago."
Readers of Richards's fiction will know that he writes about his region with that deep abiding reverence we find in the works of other Atlantic writers that have a rural connection, such as Ernest Buckler and Alistair MacLeod. There is a rich grieving lyricism to his style and a touch of elegy in his tone, perhaps the literary equivalent of an Irish lament or a Scottish pibroch.
Living in Toronto, far from the seasonal rituals of his New Brunswick woods, Richards drives to a Bass Pro Outdoor World store just outside Toronto. The store has clean-shaven hunter mannequins who are "not cold or frostbitten" or tired, and the deer below their stands are "always a buck with a fine rack. The wind does not blow …" This is where Richards sometimes went to escape the "glass and tall buildings, the miles of concrete." Here in Outdoor World, he tells us, "I can walk about and think of the Maritimes. I am not fully alive in it, but by God I am more alive."
He is critical of the stifled insularity and homogeneity of city life. For example, he and his family are uncomfortable with the education their children are fed in Toronto, where they are told that boys need to be discouraged from such activities as climbing trees, wrestling and sucking icicles – and that guns are bad and hunting is cruel. "This was not just a matter of taking on overt roughhousing and silliness, it was a systematic elimination of what boys need to be natural." The women who taught these lessons had never been exposed to the experiences of true hunters, or to what boys need to be boys, "for they have learned the methodology of equality and must prove it."
When I reread this book, it won't be for Richards's take on the Toronto school system or for his disenchantment with city life, which are more inevitable than searchingly critical moments in his book. I will read and cherish Facing the Hunter for its melancholy, joyful, hard-won wisdom on hunting, his love of the animals and the people who hunt them and the endangered, magnificent habitat of the Miramichi Valley. That is the genius of this book. Every ecosystem in this country should have defenders as eloquent and wise as David Adams Richards.
Saskatoon writer David Carpenter's most recent book is A Hunter's Confession, a non-fiction account of the decline of hunting in North America and a memoir that tries to explain why he quit hunting.