Jack Hodgins #2
April 07th, 2008
Jack Hodgins' Broken Ground (M&S $29.99) is being touted as a breakthrough. If so, this it's definitely not a trendy one. In 1922, in the aftermath of World War One, purblind and disparate settlers struggle to break ground at Portugese Creek, an enclave of land given to WW I veterans on Vancouver Island. A father is killed by dynamite in the opening pages and it ends with a funeral in 1996. Flashbacks to trench fighting in France are matched by tragedies, hopeless quests, unrequited longings and a deadly forest fire. Psychically, it's out of the frying pan and into the fire. "Some of us were so pleased with the distance we'd put behind us," says Matthew Pearson, one of the novel's ten first-person narrators, "that it took a while to see this place would kill us the sort of work it required."
Wrestling with stumps. Wrestling with memories. Wrestling with fate. Fighting a disastrous forest fire. It's not the sort of light fare that readers of Hodgins' earlier books, such as Spit Delaney's Island and The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne, will quickly associate with the Victoria-based writer born and raised in Merville, north of Courtenay.
BCBW: What triggered Broken Ground?
HODGINS: I grew up in a Returned Soldiers Settlement, hearing stories of the forest fire of 1922 that swept through the community. A few years ago it occurred to me that some of the fictional characters I'd already written about would have had, like myself, parents and grandparents who'd experienced the earliest days of the settlement. As well as the Great War.
BCBW: How important was visiting France and seeing some of the World War One battle sites?
HODGINS: It reinforced the connections. The community where I grew up was named by the Returned Soldiers after a French village they fought in. When I was in France, our hosts were interested in this and found out there are three Mervilles in France. They arranged to take me to the one the settlers most likely had in mind, a place called Merville-au-bois.
BCBW: And where exactly is Merville-au-bois?
HODGINS: Near Amiens. It's right on the Western Front. The former mayor of the village showed me the trenches that ran right along the edge of the village, a few metres from his door. Exploring that Picardy area made me think of the soldiers I knew as a child. It caused me to start thinking more about what it must have been like for them to come from the trenches in France to the stumps of Vancouver Island. This, in turn, prompted me to start doing some more serious research. I interrupted another novel to get going on this one. Last fall I returned for a second visit to the area. I attended the November 11th ceremony at Vimy Ridge.
BCBW: How closely does Portugese Creek have any bearing on Merville, where you were raised?
HODGINS: Merville was never even a small town — just a general store, a community hall and a scattering of farms. There is a Portugese Creek whose nameless tributaries wander through everyone's property. I borrowed something of the geography of the place, and the architecture of the original houses, and of course historical events like the forest fire, but I imagined my own cast of characters and allowed them to respond to these events in their own way.
BCBW: Did you model any characters after people who really existed?
HODGINS: I avoided that. I borrowed some experiences of actual individuals but was careful to avoid portraits of real personalities.
BCBW: Growing up in Merville, did you ever feel 'bush league'? Or was the rest of the world so remote you didn't care?
HODGINS: Growing up in Merville I felt 'bush league' even in relation to people who lived in the nearby small town of Courtenay, so the rest of the world was a great intimidating enigma. I knew there was a good deal about Merville that was pretty wonderful but I didn't think anyone anywhere else would agree.
BCBW: This is obviously a very important novel for you. On a deeply personal level.
HODGINS: I feel as though I've been waiting all my life to write this one. I grew up listening to family stories of the Merville Fire of 1922, which completely surrounded my father's family house, cutting off escape right through the night. It burned their farm buildings and killed their animals. I remember the ageing settlers who fought in the Great War. I lived in a house built by a Returned Soldier, and played as a child amongst the giant stumps blackened by the fire. All of these seemed like extensions of my own being. Writing the fictional account was a way of re-living something I never exactly lived in the first place.
BCBW: Some readers might be surprised to learn Canada had ground-breaking pioneers as late as 1922.
HODGINS: A few of those original pioneers are still around. It was fascinating to learn from them, and from my parents, how things were done. For instance, I had to become a bit of an explosives 'expert' in order to understand how those field were cleared.
BCBW: The story made me appreciate some things anew — such as the extent to which early settlers were ethnically diverse. One basic hurdle they had to overcome was just communication amongst themselves.
HODGINS. Absolutely. Canadian multi-culturalism is nothing new. My earliest experiences taught me it can work very well. There was a nice blend of assimilation and retention of earier customs. There was mutual assistance and respect for differences.
BCBW: The only other novel that connects World War I with B.C. pioneering is Hubert Evans' out-of-print New Front Line.
HODGINS: I haven't read it. But I did read other fiction about the First World War and fiction about pioneering. There was nothing I read that linked them.
BCBW: Peter Trower once wrote a very powerful poem that compares fighting in a war to being a logger.
HODGINS: For those Returned Soldiers who were 'rewarded' with land for farming, clearing the stumps must have seemed like a continuation of war. Some were wounded by explosives. And of course many more were wounded or killed in the logging camps. Most of them ended up in the logging camps because it became clear that very few of them would ever make a living off their farms. The land was suitable only for timber.
BCBW: No wonder people moved to the cities. It struck me that a less subtle publisher would have called this novel Broken Ground, Broken Hearts.
HODGINS: And yet in spite of all the hardships, despite the forest fire, people stayed to create a cohesive community. They had come to Merville from all over Canada. For many of them, this was a second migration, since they'd come from other countries before the war. Most didn't want to go back. Many, of course, couldn't afford to leave.
BCBW: Tragedy was unavoidable in those days but at least it was always shared.
HODGINS: And the sharing extended to a lifetime of sharing stories. The great fire, the clearing of land, the family tragedies, the comical escapades. All entered the mythology of the community, retold in overlapping narratives at every gathering. The Great War that preceded this was seldom talked about at all, so far as I know, except within the walls of some family homes.
BCBW: Your earlier books have a comedic style. Now you're writing about a terrible fire that consumes an entire settlement. Do you feel you've changed as a writer?
HODGINS: I'm probably concerned with much the same things as always. This time the outward events may be war and fire and hard work and loss, but the novel's real interest is in love, family, fidelity and the successful forging of the community. What interests me is that the fire, which consumed much of the settlement, did not consume the community. I wanted to explore the human qualities that made this possible.
BCBW: You've stayed with the same editor throughout your career. Are you aware that's almost seems bizarre, given the demise of loyalty in general?
HODGINS: I understand I was the first new writer Doug Gibson chose to take on when he began work at Macmillan. When he moved to McClelland & Stewart I followed — as did others. Over time, I suppose a sort of short-hand has developed, as in any friendship. I know how he works; he knows how I work. Doug's great enthusiasm for a book he's edited is rewarding, of course. So is his approach, which is to sit in for my toughest future reader.
BCBW: I had difficulty with you using the first person voice for all your different characters. Obviously a 'concert of characters' is the protagonist. Was this ever considered to be a risk?
HODGINS: A number of writers I admire have successfully done it. I experimented with other approaches but eventually saw that only a chorus of voices and a variety of narrations would be consistent with the novel's eventual discovery — that the story is in the variety of voices and points of view and visions. This strong community is born not only out of shared hardships but out of the habit of telling and hearing about it again and again from every conceivable angle.
BCBW: You've even created a society of characters and clans who keep re-appearing in your books. As if your fiction is a smalltown unto itself.
HODGINS: It wasn't something I planned from the beginning. But it seems perfectly natural to me now. These people sometimes arrive in the stories uninvited.
BCBW: Looking at your work as a whole, I'd say you're first and foremost a Vancouver Islander. Is that a fair assessment?
HODGINS: It's probably impossible for someone who's first and foremost a Vancouver Islander to know such a thing about himself.
Essay Date: 1998