Saskatoon StarPhoenix Review - The GoldThis is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix
The spring run from Coteau Books includes 3 titles of particular interest to Sask readers
Reviewed by: Bill Robertson
The first, from redoubtable Saskatoon novelist, essayist, and poet David Carpenter, is a novel entitled The Gold ($21.95). Within the first 40 pages of this wild adventure and moral contemplation comes a scene in which the protagonist, Joseph Burbidge, finds himself in the boxing ring at his dreaded British boarding school, taking on a rich bully.
Between Joseph’s long-practised punch and its landing comes this line: “in each moment of our lives, the past proclaims itself like a song we want to forget. But we must learn from this tedious song if only to silence it for a while. Give history its choruses now and then and get on with your life.” There, in its kind, school master tone, is the philosophical heart of Carpenter’s new novel.
Many parts 19th Century boys’ adventure story from the likes of Kipling and Thomas Hughes, with sociological grimness thrown in from Arnold Bennett and D.H. Lawrence, The Gold plots the rise and turbulent times of Joe Burbidge. He grows up in a dirty English coal-mining town, loses his father, gains a morally-questionable stepfather, is sent away to school, clears out for Canada to endure various disasters before finding himself part of the recent scramble for gold starting in Edmonton and working his way to Yellowknife and the area north of that wild town.
With a colourful cohort, including wrangler Stinky Riley, Metis trapper Isidore Chartrand and his son Charlie, and a host of formidable bad guys, Joseph finds and sells varying amounts of gold while seeking the motherlode. Along the way he learns about Canada’s north, its peoples, has a few romances and love affairs, nearly gets killed a few times in spectacular ways, and does a lot of thinking about the man he has become and what he has had to do to get there. I’m hiding in vagueness because I don’t want to give away a number of key plot points.
Carpenter’s novel, like Burbidge, hears the past like a song it wants to forget. It imports all the rough and tumble stuff of boys’ adventures, but it hears and is repulsed by rank forms of colonialism, moves around it, and gets on with life. As a boy I read all the stories for boys I could find, and there were a few “Indians” thrown in here and there for colour or menace, but never did my main character acknowledge, as Joe does, that they were “in Treaty Eight country now, where the Northern Cree, the South Slaveys, the Dogrib and the Chipewyans hunted, fished, trapped …” But readers can expect this respect for First Nations people from the man who brought us the much-needed Education of Augie Merasty. And there are many more examples of such attention and respect in Carpenter’s story.
There are also, as befits a writer who once taught English literature, many literary references, including a hilarious set piece about James Joyce’s Ulysses and a beautiful reduction of mystery stories to their most basic essence: “Animal tracks, dung, bones. These his letters and words. And lo, humanity’s first class in reading. Humanity’s first whodunit. Wolves done it.” The novel flags a bit in its middle, but then finds its feet again and comes roaring back for more. The Gold is high adventure with both heart and conscience. It knows where the riches truly lie.
This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix