Claiming Place in Wor(l)ds: Linda Hogan's Solar Storms

Article excerpt

Background

At the southern tip of the Hudson Bay lie the marshy tidal flats of the James Bay. A shallow body of salt and fresh water, the Bay forms the largest river drainage system in northern North America. A refuge for migratory birds and habitat for a wide variety offish and mammals, the region is home to native Cree communities whose lives traditionally centered on hunting caribou and fishing. Canadian aboriginal policy in principle supports Cree rights to the resources on their territory. In 1912, when the northern part of this territory became part of Quebec, national statutes required that the province recognize, and then obtain surrender of these rights. But because the provincial government saw no economic or political benefit to holding the land, they did not follow through on their part of the agreement.

In the 1940s new hydropower technologies made it profitable to harness the energy of rivers in Cree territory. Though its indigenous peoples never surrendered the territory, development continued because the government claimed that water, as a "common property resource, "provides for the needs of all Canadians, and that this claim overrides First Nations claims to the lands (Waldram 8-9). In 1971, Hydro-Quebec and both the provincial and national governments used a similar argument when Hydro-Quebec began diverting the energy of the rivers flowing into the James Bay. The diversion of the LaGrande and Eastmain Rivers produced widespread, comprehensive damage to the James Bay ecosystem and displaced Cree communities who suffered from marked increases in rates of alcoholism, family violence, and suicide (James Bay Road--Hydro-Quebec Project).

The protests and legal struggle mobilized against the dams gained support from numerous environmental groups, and it attracted widespread media attention. When, in 1975, the Cree, the government, and Hydro-Quebec signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, it was hailed as the first modern land claims settlement in Canadian history. In practice, however, the project and the protest against it continued to expand for more than 25 years (James Bay Road--Hydro-Quebec Project).

Similar ambiguity characterized La Paix des Braves (New Relationship Agreement) signed by Quebec's Prime Minister Bernard Landry and Cree Grand Chief Ted Moses in 2002. Although this agreement requires the government and power company to negotiate with the Cree as an independent nation, the debate continues as to whether the agreement is yet another form of cooptation and assimilation, and Cree communities continue to pay the heavy cultural costs (See, for example, Boucher). (1)

"To the builders of the dams," says the narrator in Linda Hogan's novel Solar Storms (1995), "we were dark outsiders whose lives had no relevance to them" (283). These words speak to the influence of the James Bay controversy on Hogan's novel. Yet even though Hogan's characters, events, and the fictional geography of the novel bear striking resemblances to James Bay, a disclaimer on the copyright page states: "This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental." At one level the statement protects the author from potential lawsuits and buffers the sharp edges of subject matter charged with political controversy and emotional pain for readers who see themselves mirrored in her words. At another level, however, Hogan's disclaimer speaks to a dilemma for all readers and writers of literature in the postmodern era, where basic systems of belief throughout the globe conflict openly with each other, and where the validity of belief itself has been questioned by scholars, writers, and ordinary people alike.

How then is it possible for the reader to connect the world of an imaginative text to the world of lived experience in a meaningful way? …