Sharp imagery and spare dialogue are put to good use in Gail Anderson-Dargatz's ghost tale of a mysterious force intent on destroying a family in rural British Columbia.
Eighteen-year-old Hannah Robertson lost her mother to suicide when Hannah was a girl, and now it looks like her brother Brandon is on the same course. It's up to her to figure out how to save him. Hannah and Brandon live on a farm on the fictional Lightning River, in south-central B.C., not far from Kamloops. The river was once a natural thoroughfare for spawning salmon but thanks to any number of myopic decisions by farmers and land developers, the Lightning has ebbed to a trickle in places, choked by silt. In the opening chapters of the book, we see Hannah carrying a salmon by hand upriver so it can do its reproductive work. It's not as nature intended, and as in Anderson-Dargatz's previous novels, The Cure For Death By Lightning and Turtle Valley, when humans meddle with nature, nature seeks revenge.
On one side of the river is the Shuswap First Nation. They've been protesting against development and urging the local white settlers to lay off the fishing, given the health of the stocks. On the other side is the Robertson family, cattle ranchers, led by Hannah's grandfather Stew, the patriarch, who has little sympathy for his aboriginal neighbours. "When are you Indians going to get over the fact that this land belongs to us now," he says, painting a prosaic cowboys-and-Indians B-movie polarity the novel sometimes flirts with but eventually writes its way out of. Soon enough, Stew will change his mind.
Determined to fish where he's always fished, he falls off his horse and almost drowns in the river. Brandon, in an effort to save him, is delivered a strange and frightening vision of a human figure in the water, maybe a hallucination or maybe one of the "water mysteries" the Shuswap speak of in their folklore. Stew survives, just barely, and is sent to the hospital in grave condition. Brandon is fine, but in time he seems changed, as if something deep inside has been lost. It falls on Hannah to figure out what's wrong with him.
Hannah and Brandon's father, Jesse, left the farm after his wife died, and he's been making a living as an itinerant welder without much enthusiasm. But when word reaches him that Brandon is perhaps suffering from the same mental illness that killed his mother, Jesse sees no other choice but to return to the farm. Besides, he figures, it might be time to sell the place, now that Stew is in hospital and unlikely to recover.
From here, Anderson-Dargatz weaves together a dysfunctional family story and an indigenous ghost tale. The novel tries too hard to be profound and some of the symbolism is heavy-handed (the image of two eagles locked in a death grip over the river works well the first time, but not the third), but when the story is left to breathe on its own, it works well. Brandon's descent into madness, or his possession by indigenous spirits, depending on how you choose to read his dilemma, is vividly drawn. He scrawls pictures on his bedroom wall of animals with human features, crows with the eyes of women. He can no longer stand to wear shoes and can't explain why. By the river, he sees a coyote with the arms and legs of a man. "The wind sings," he says. "Trees and animals talk to me."
To Alex, a young man from the Shuswap side whose relationship with Hannah is evolving past mere friendship, there's no doubt: The boy is possessed by a spirit intent on destroying all settlement on the Lightning River as payback for bad stewardship; both First Nations and whites have gone out of their way over time to overfish and undermanage and now it's time, through Brandon, to settle the score. Jesse doesn't buy it: What the boy needs is therapy and the right pills. Hannah doesn't know what to believe and therein lies the tension of the story.
To deepen the drama, Anderson-Dargatz runs parallel tales from past and present, from Hannah's time and the crisis with Brandon, back to the time of the first Robertson settler in the 19th century, a gold prospector named Eugene who discovers a Lightning River so thick with salmon they nearly capsize his boat in a "thunderous rush." It's Eugene Robertson who first encounters the strange figure in the water. The spirits, if that's what they are, have been haunting the Robertsons for generations. In the end, it's up to Hannah to make sense of family history, her grief, her absentee father and her relationship with Alex to save her brother and herself. In the end, The Spawning Grounds is a coming-of-age story with a very strange supernatural twist.
Tom Jokinen is the author of Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training.