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Van Camp's important stories uneven

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/10/2015 (1606 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Night Moves is Northwest Territories writer Richard Van Camp's fourth short-story collection (he has also authored a novel, graphic novels and children's books). Like his earlier collections, the stories focus on the fictional N.W.T. community of Fort Simmer, based vaguely on Van Camp's hometown of Fort Smith.

One of six books Van Camp will release in 2015, Night Moves also offers the return of a number of characters from his previous books. More importantly, the stories continue Van Camp's penchant for slow builds towards powerful, sudden shifts in the plot that transform the story situation.

I Double Dogrib Dare You best illustrates the approach of Van Camp, a member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation. Most of the story consists of a dialogue between two characters, one trying to bed the other while attempting to tease out her mysteries. By the story's end, although the characters still haven't done anything other than talk, things have tipped into the realm of supernatural horror with crushing intensity.

Most of the stories in Night Moves, as the title nod to Bob Seger's lusty ballad might suggest, approach sexuality in some way. They work best when Van Camp skirts the fringes of horror and escalates towards the supernatural, incorporating Dogrib knowledge while building to mystical terror.

A consistent problem, however, is that Van Camp's stories almost always begin in a vague situation and setting that rarely gets clarified, owing to a lack of description.

On the one hand, this tendency is a side effect of Van Camp's style, which incorporates oral-history techniques. In many stories, like the post-apocalyptic Wheetago War, this approach works exceptionally well.

"We are the new Dene. I see this every day. I was born after the twinning of the sun and in the haunted way of the Dog People... I sometimes wake up a girl; I sometimes wake up a boy." What's happening here? What was "the twinning of the sun?" It doesn't matter. The resulting confusion enhances the chaotic experience of this ruined world, immersing the reader.

On the other hand, and in other stories, his approach weakens the material, since Van Camp doesn't commit to it. When he is more heavily drawing on European literary models, the confusion undermines his otherwise considerable strengths and leads him towards clichés and lazy prose.

In Because of What I Did, the main character thinks, "Creator, I have never questioned why you gave me my size and the ability to not feel cold. Maybe it was so I could walk through fire for you." In addition to the cliché of walking through fire, the ability needed to walk through fire would be to not feel heat. The fire is metaphorical, but the metaphor produces confusion rather than enriching the story.

Van Camp's failings are few, ultimately, but a tremendous shame since there appears to be nobody else writing about this area and this experience. Van Camp is often cited as the world's first published Dogrib author; this reviewer isn't aware of another.

Nevertheless, like his other books, Night Moves presents strong stories that sometimes begin weakly, but grow more engrossing as they unfold.


Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) is the author of five books. Visit him online at www.WritingTheWrongWay.com.


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Updated on Saturday, October 3, 2015 at 8:51 AM CDT: Formatting.

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