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Scotch River

By Linda Little

Viking Canada, 327 pages, $30

In the literary realm of things, what I dread is Nova Scotia fiction delving into the traditional way of life written by people who aren't even from the frigging province. Joyce lived in Switzerland and wrote about Ireland. David Adams Richards has gone down the road to Toronto but still writes about New Brunswick. Why can't the transplants to Nova Scotia write about wherever it was they came from? As Flannery O'Connor so simply said: "The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days."

The title of this novel by Linda Little, Scotch River, had me anticipating faux Maritime storytelling featuring a tartan-attired cast of tourism-brochure characters hauling the lobster while talking about their forefathers, playing fiddles and babbling away in Gaelic. Little, who now resides in rural Nova Scotia, is from the Ottawa Valley mill town of Hawkesbury, not to be confused with the mill town of Nova Scotia called Port Hawkesbury.

But it doesn't matter where Little was born and raised -- she has tossed aside Nova Scotia clichés and created a captivating story with fresh and original characters. With great skill, she creates a fictional world so real it is enough to have one plotting a trip to Scotch River just as many Faulkner fans have headed to Mississippi looking for his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Little demonstrated her talent in her first novel, Strong Hollow (2001), which was nominated for numerous awards, including the in Canada First Novel Award. It is no surprise that she has written a fine second novel.

Scotch River explores a theme also found in Strong Hollow: family and its power to maim its own. Scotch River also looks at the concept of home and homecoming, the nature of belonging. The novel largely unfolds inland, the ocean lapping at the edges of rundown lives. The story hangs on Casper (Cass) Hutt, rodeo rider and illiterate orphan, who comes from the prairies to Scotch River and directly into the secrets, lies, dreams and despairs of the Holmes family.

In the tradition of the western novel, the mysterious Cass arrives in town alone, sporting a big-ass hat and few possessions, a knapsack and a mysterious land deed he has inherited. The East Coast cowboy then commences to find his inheritance and shake the place up. In the process, he discovers who he really is and what it means to call a place home.

Cass is a solitary figure, but the narrative provides us with moments of his past, including a relationship with fellow rodeo rider Lionel. Little's agent aptly compares her writing to Annie Proulx's cowboy short story, Brokeback Mountain. Both Proulx and Little expertly weave a wild mix of gentle and rough, showing both sides of the leather. Like Proulx, Little depicts men with a piercing intimacy and skill. The world of the book is tremendous when we move in the realm of the male.

As Cass begins to search for answers, he encounters the Holmes family. There is Eleanor Holmes, the family matriarch, a British war bride grateful for the death of her husband and devastated by the death of her favoured son, Murray. There are other sons, Ben, the do-good teacher, desperate for his mother's approval, and derided Earl, the lobster fisherman without a lobster licence, always looking for any get-rich-fast scheme he can conjure up. Earl is constantly cleaning up the messes created by his own drug-addicted son, Wayne. There is Pipe, Murray's daughter, the odd young woman who has retreated into a world of silence and art, living alone in the woods in a strange little house.

Each character speaks with a colourful voice and a distinct identity. The story is tightly plotted, with the point of view smoothly moving from character to character. The novel unfolds with steady pacing as Little coils the characters together with the precision and intricacy of a Swiss watchmaker. While characters such as Earl and Wayne at times seem to have leaped directly from Trailer Park Boys, Little takes us to the source of their grief, deftly illuminating their private agonies, lifting them beyond caricature.

Little beautifully depicts a drunken Earl, riddled with agony over his failings as a father, remembering his son Wayne as an innocent child. We see beyond Earl's repulsive machismo, looking directly into a bottomless pit of parental sorrow. There we see the Wayne that once was, a Wayne that is gone forever.

There are also some genuinely comic moments, a laugh-out-loud scene when Cass confesses himself, he thinks, to the crypt-like secrecy of the sleeping and senile Jack, only to have the old man sit upright in his chair and chastise him.

Linda Little has written a splendid novel. It is rumoured that her third novel will also be set in Scotch River. I can't wait to go back there with her.

Christy Ann Conlin, author of Heave, was born and raised in rural Nova Scotia. She is working on her second novel.