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Slow burn

Brilliant debut novel mirrors Caledonia standoff

Krista Foss, author of Smoke River.


Krista Foss, author of Smoke River.

There is an extraordinary moment in Smoke River in which an elder, chosen to speak for her community, tries to explain the ongoing destruction of a civilization and the meaning of sacred land.

The land in question was to be a new subdivision, until two Mohawk women set up a blockade to stop the bulldozers.

The government negotiator isn't listening to the elder. She's a former cabinet minister who's been given a $3,000-a-day sinecure to clean up this mess, and cares only about how much money the band council wants to cut a deal. She's too busy talking on her cellphone and demanding her entourage find her a glass of juice to pay the elder any attention or respect.

People do a lot of talking and not very much listening in Smoke River, the outstanding first novel by former journalist Krista Foss.

Given that Foss lives in Hamilton, Ont., readers can speculate Smoke River is based in part on the standoff in Caledonia a few years ago.

The word "Ontario" never appears in the book, though the people and the land could be anywhere near Lake Erie, around the tobacco fields of Tillsonburg, Delhi and Simcoe -- once-thriving, now-depressed areas in which native reserves and white towns live in uneasy coexistence.

The characters here are the most collectively joyless bunch this side of the human survivors in The Walking Dead. Not that their lives ever contained very much joy, and the blockade makes real the separation that's always been lurking there.

Foss may have had her fingers crossed that readers would ignore just how unlikely it is that a developer living next to a reserve would try to build a subdivision on disputed land.

The blockade is just suddenly there -- no buildup, no suspense. One minute the bulldozers and crews are heading for another day of work, then the next minute two Mohawk women are sitting in lawn chairs, blocking the access road.

Smoke River could have been trite, it could have been by-the-numbers, there could have been overt messages of systemic racism figuratively bashing readers over their heads, or it could have been full of caricatures leading up to the inevitable violence, on which lesser writers would rely.

There are familiar figures on the three sides: on the reserve, in the town, as well as those who try to straddle the solitudes. But Foss has made them into real people with compelling stories.

There's Shayna, the young Mohawk lawyer with a tragic past who has returned to the reserve and is in love with Coulson, the white tobacco farmer trying to make a go of it in a world of non-smokers.

There's the typical small-community moneyed class: on the one side is Elijah, who needs the townies to buy from him; and on the other, Ella and Mitch, who have sunk everything into the subdivision and for whom appearances matter more than their kids or their marriage.

Their son Las is a typical small-town high school crown prince, heading inevitably for big trouble. Cherisse is the native girl running a tobacco stand who just wants to get away.

An over-her-head mayor, elders, cops, ex-lovers, politicos, lawyers, bandana-ed militants, shaven-headed rednecks in honky-tonks and pickups, and more than one Romeo-and-Juliet entanglement -- every one of them is real and fleshed-out in Smoke River, none feeling false or manufactured.


Free Press education reporter Nick Martin once worked near Tillonsburg, Ont., but has never tasted tobacco.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 G6


Updated on Saturday, May 17, 2014 at 8:35 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting, adds photo/book jacket.

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