#463 Escape from the Nechako Valley
January 11th, 2019
Starlight: An Unfinished Novel
by Richard Wagamese
Toronto: Penguin Random House (McClelland & Stewart), 2018
$19.95 / 9780771070877
Reviewed by Eldon Yellowhorn
Between his birth on October 14, 1955 and March 10, 2017, when he died at his home in Kamloops, Richard Wagamese tried to live his life on his own terms. His too-short life mirrors the uncertainty left with readers of Starlight, his final, incomplete novel, which in its lack of resolution seems a fitting legacy for him.
Wagamese divides his straightforward narrative into a prologue and three sections, though the last is truncated by his death. The publisher then provides a note explaining the decision to release Starlight as a tribute to the author’s influence on contemporary native literature, and includes an essay penned by Wagamese that is biographical in tone and hints at a hard life.
Frank Starlight is the title character whose perspective makes up the prologue. He is a young man in 1976 when we meet him. He is dealing with the recent death of his father figure and feeling the kind of emptiness that comes with loss. His life has only questions and a vague purpose. Although the option arises for him to leave his valley home, he decides to remain and continue his relationship with the farm and the land around the Fraser Lake district of British Columbia.
Book One, “Wild Things,” opens with Emmy Strong and her daughter, Winnie, planning on leaving Emmy’s abuser Jeff Cadotte, who is boozing with his friend Anderson. (For the most part Wagamese uses the surnames of his characters and almost renders their first names incidental.) Emmy and Winnie escape Cadotte’s grip after she kicks and fights them with knives and various blunt objects. The screaming emerges from the metaphorical flames of this disastrous uncoupling.
Fours years and counting, and Frank Starlight is still on the farm in the Nechako Valley when a thoroughly battered Emmy stumbles into his life. He is at a turning point in his career as a photographer. It is launching him towards a big-city fame that keeps intruding on the rural solitude that inspires his work.
Frank hires Emmy as his live-in housekeeper and takes in Winnie in the process. He introduces them, and the reader, to Eugene Roth, his ersatz father figure. Emmy is on the run and trying to give Winnie a chance at life, and though she finds a haven with Frank, she cannot find peace from her fears of her stalker. With good reason does she fret — her ex-partner Cadotte is looking for her with a mission of sating his vengeance. He and Anderson have a score to settle with her as soon as they get out of the hospital.
Book Two, “Deer Stalker,” brings Emmy and Winnie to a better place than they fled. Frank and Eugene, outdoor enthusiasts, introduce them to nature, trail rides, and fishing, which are therapy for their troubled souls. Frank, who never strayed far from home, had learned to fill his life with strays who provided substitute relationships with which he forged his idea of family. Meanwhile, through the lens of his camera he captured a world that few people got to experience.
Fractions of time frozen in his photographs both sustain and, through their quality, threaten his splendid isolation. Deacon, a local gallery owner, encourages Frank to mount an exhibition in Vancouver to further his career. Unintended fame forces him to step away from his natural environment just as Emmy’s proximity forces him to visit matters of the human heart for the first time. Despite the skittishness draped over them, Frank and Emmy work through their fear of familiarity and become a couple. Oh yes — despite their bucolic domesticity there is danger in their future. Cadotte and Anderson have not forgotten their vendetta.
Book Three, “Unbroken Country,” surrounds the anxiety of fame as it stalks Frank, just as he had tracked the subjects of his photographs. Emmy becomes his anchor in the down-home life that balances the expectations of celebrity. Alas, the pull of patrons and buyers — who want a piece of the insight that finds expression in his photographs — draws him out of his backwater burg and into the bright lights of the big city. Surrendering to the call of notoriety, Frank takes his blended family with him on that fateful trip to Vancouver where Cadotte and his sidekick Anderson catch up to Emmy.
As a work of fiction the central plot is the familiar sordid story of boy meets girl, boy abuses girl, girl attempts murder and flees into the night pursued by a twisted boy with sinister motives. The easy symmetry of dysfunctional romance, revenge, and redemption that ensnare the characters is a reliable plot line repurposed countless times in pulp fiction and film noir.
Nothing but unrequired love can inspire the kind of menace following in the wake of the femme-fatale/ damsel-in-distress archetype that requires a hero and a villain for resolution. Unfortunately the characters, like the storyline, never rise above the three-cornered constellation of cliché. Emmy is the essential fleeing woman trying to outrun her past with her daughter Winnie in tow, trying to feign normality.
Frank Starlight is the hero, the man of the land we expect except here he is a stoic, ecological Indian. He is a man of few words possessed with a visceral communion with nature, which explains his reserve.
Jeff Cadotte is the angry and nefarious white counterpart who infuses the story with tension. His type always brings vengeance and villainy, but this role is never fully realized in Starlight. Those parts where he appears are often the shortest and Wagamese uses them to explore the patois of men accustomed to a rough life. Finally, Winnie, Anderson, Eugene, and Deacon fulfill the essence of characters who are convenient ornaments placed where needed to round out the narrative structure. Wagamese uses the plot device of foreshadowing the story’s end so that the reader is left to infer his intent. Foreshadowing forms an odd segue between chapters, but in retrospect it lends a fitting undertone to the subtitle.
Neither the writing nor the plot is complicated, which makes Starlight an easy read. I read it from cover to cover over the course of days, but contiguous hours filling one day would have sufficed. Having read previous works by Wagamese I see a writer still honing his skills; the novel leaves rough edges that need smoothing.
But this is, of course, an unfinished novel. Character development to move the story along and the right words to describe the characters’ motives, fears, and aspirations – unfortunately these will progress no more. This is too bad, but even in its unfinished state we can see the creative process behind Wagamese’s voice. Starlight is the final work of a master storyteller with a gift of writing.
Dr. Eldon Yellowhorn is from the Piikani Nation, and is working toward preserving his traditional language. He is the founding chair of the Department of First Nations Studies at Simon Fraser University. He is co-author (with Kathy Lowinger) of Turtle Island: The Story of North America’s First People (Annick Press, 2017).
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 Marsha Lederman, “Ojibway author Richard Wagamese found salvation in stories” The Globe and Mail (on-line edition obituary, March 24, 2017).