In 1967, a mysterious craft appeared in the night sky over Nova Scotia, scaring the bejeezus out of a dozen or so Bluenosers, and crashed into the sea near the tiny fishing village of Shag Harbour. There it floated for a while and then appeared to dive beneath the waves. This has since become known as the Shag Harbour Incident, and Austin Powers jokes aside ("Shag Harbour? Sounds like my kind of place, baby!"), it remains one of the best government-documented UFO incidents in history, second only to the Roswell crash of 1947.
Canadian and U.S. naval vessels and divers scoured the area, and rumours still abound as to what they found, but the truth has never been revealed. The most authoritative account of the crash is Dark Object, an investigative book by Chris Styles and Don Ledger, but the only evidence these two intrepid truth-hunters managed to produce was that there was a government cover-up of ... something. Was the craft, which was decked out in blinking lights and witnessed by several RCMP and Coast Guard officers, an alien ship, a Soviet satellite or something else altogether? If anyone knows, they're not telling.
Sounding Line, the third novel from B.C. author Anne DeGrace, is set in a fictitious version of Shag Harbour, and it uses the crash as what self-professed story guru Robert McKee might call its "inciting incident." If you are, like me, a lover of mysteries who finds there is too much UFO evidence to dismiss out of hand entirely, this premise is irresistible.
The story itself is less so, partly because DeGrace refuses to rely on sensation or spectacle to move things along. This is actually to her credit. A work of literary fiction featuring empathic alien botanists like E.T. or luminous-skinned serial abductors like those in Close Encounters of The Third Kind would be ridiculous, after all. But there were moments when I wished DeGrace didn't possess such scruples, because having dangled this otherworldly carrot in front of her readers, she then expects us to keep turning the pages simply because of the dramatic predicaments of her characters. These, though portrayed with plenty of pathos, are disappointingly terrestrial in comparison, and sometimes too predictable.
DeGrace's protagonist, Pocket Snow, is a heavy-hearted young man who suffers mild public indignities at the hands of bully Cuff Dodds, and is also dealing with the imminent loss of his mother to cancer. Rod Nowland, a cub reporter from Ottawa, and Wanda, a California psychic whose abilities DeGrace portrays as genuine, appear in town after the crash. They become quickly - maybe a little too quickly - woven into the fabric of the community, which comes complete with a general store in which everyone gathers to gossip excitedly about everything.
Many small towns in this part of the world still use general stores as de facto forums, but this is one of many real-life details that could have been shaped into something more unique in the hands of a writer as stylistically talented as DeGrace. Her craft is refined and her prose engaging, but the story itself contains little we haven't seen before - submerged alien spaceships aside.
DeGrace also delves into the considerable paranormal lore of this province, showing us frequent forerunners (a sort of death announcement from the beyond) and telling us that a ghost sounds like "something soft knocking on nothing." The aliens lurking under the sea also sound like nothing, because we never see or hear them, although their arrival does liven things up. Pocket's mother experiences a brief surge of health, Cuff transforms from idiot bully to half-assed entrepreneur, and Rod summons the courage to quit his job in Ottawa and start over in Halifax. A couple of gratuitous marriages also result.
Eventually, having tired of their Maritime vacation, or perhaps having finally imparted, in one of their many telepathic exchanges with Wanda, everything they had to say (we never find out what, though we are told that she "made contact, at last"), the aliens disappear, along with a couple of mysterious artifacts that I found myself wishing had been used more strongly, perhaps as cosmic McGuffins, to anchor their interplanetary presences.
As a child, DeGrace summered in Nova Scotia, and her characters speak in a dialect that is authentic and vivid. No doubt her young writer's mind was captivated by the official accounts of the strange airship with flashing lights, for whatever the thing was, it was certainly there. Yet despite the truth behind the story, Shag-Harbour-as-Inciting-Incident ultimately feels like an unsuccessful attempt to meld two genres, science fiction and literary fiction, by a writer who is far more comfortable with the latter than the former.
William Kowalski is a novelist and screenwriter living on Nova Scotia's South Shore.