Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"There Is Another Story, There Always Is ...": Red Dog Red Dog and the Okanagan

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"There Is Another Story, There Always Is ...": Red Dog Red Dog and the Okanagan

Article excerpt

AMID THE STARTLING INHUMANITY of those who populate the unforgiving yet sustaining world of the fictional Okanagan in Patrick Lane's Red Dog Red Dog (2008) is a surprising vision of nature that is powerfully estranged from conventional practices of apprehension and recognition. It is a vision of nature that begins from a place of passionate attachment to this desert valley that exists as so much more than the setting for the novel. Lane's Okanagan is a ceaseless force upon his characters and reminds us that desertification can take place in the psyche and amid social relations as much as it does on the land. Written with a deep understanding of the ways in which colonial settlement turned an arid landscape first into orchards and now a four-season tourist playground that is perhaps not nearly haunted enough by its violent past, Red Dog Red Dog shows readers a side of the Okanagan rarely encountered at its beaches or vineyards and thus reflects on the ways in which the truth of a place arrives in fiction better than it does in the laboured fantasies of a leisure economy. Lane grew up in Vernon, British Columbia, in the valley and hills that surround the northern end of Lake Okanagan, and this novel closely attends to this place as well as the histories of violence that have defined and damaged the Okanagan and its inhabitants. Red Dog Red Dog returns to the Okanagan of the 1950s and weaves together memory, human history, and the environment into a haunting poetics of loss that speaks powerfully to our own time of environmental collapse and the rhetoric of loss and degradation that has become one of the primary ways of understanding the present.

Attentive to the ways in which memory and grief are attached to the land, Red Dog Red Dog does more than inundate "the reader with a world marked by generational pain, anger, and brutality" although Lisa Grekul rightly identifies the almost suffocating despair of the book (173). The novel's deep attention to the Okanagan is both melancholic and loving, and its regard for nature often expresses a comforting relationship to the natural world that helps to hold human violence and neglect at bay. When Lane writes of Tom Stark's childhood adventures in the hills surrounding Vernon, he tells of a boy's effort to remember his deceased sisters, including Alice, the narrator: "He'd cross the old orchard from Pottery Road and at our graves he'd kneel, in his hands the white skull of a mink he'd found or an eagle's feather he'd watched fall from the clouds and he'd set the treasure on the stones that marked our place" (51). Against the seemingly limitless loss and violence of the Stark family, the novel emphasizes the Okanagan as a reassuringly durable nature that can survive, recalling how Romanticism turned to nature as that which is solid and steady amid so much uncertainty and traumatic social upheaval. If the Okanagan helps to humanize this grim family history and make it readable, the fantasy of something that can outlast loss is likewise part of the novel's effort--again drawing upon the legacies of Romanticism--to think through the very concept of nature and the condition of the possibility of bringing it into presence. It is worth saying from the outset that the Okanagan is nothing but this complicated knot of nature and its vanishing into forms of mediation that make its presence tangible and forever lost to us, and in this respect I follow Timothy Morton's assertion that ecological thinking needs to reach out and ceaselessly map the interconnections between what we too often misidentify as separate: the real on the one hand and the rhetorical presentation of the real on the other. I want to consider, then, how the novel develops a practice of looking at the Okanagan that is also a form of looking away and brings together two seemingly opposite operations: the aesthetic practice of apprehending and a psychological practice of avoidance and neglect. Scarred by failures to work through loss, the novel questions rather than assumes the differences between confronting and avoiding that attend this operation of looking away. …

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