The Canadian Supernatural: In Fiction from Charles G.D. Roberts to Gabrielle Roy and Joseph Boyden, Nature Takes on Spiritual Power

Article excerpt

"As to ghosts or spirits they appear totally banished from Canada. This is too matter-of-fact a country for such supernaturals to visit."

--Catharine Parr Traill

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IT ALWAYS MAKES ME CHUCKLE when I read those lines.

Go to any Chapters, Coles or regional tourist shop: you will find at least one collection, if not several, of local ghost stories or regional tales of the supernatural. John Robert Colombo has made a career of finding and packaging such encounters.

Granted, it was 1833 when Catharine Parr Traill wrote those words and Ontario did not yet have the requisite number of haunted houses needed to meet the supernatural stereotype. In fairness, her idea of ghosts was imported from a country that offered its citizens romantic, class-based folklore in which spirits either hung out in gothic graveyards or suddenly appeared on the moor.

Of course, that is the problem, isn't it? We are taught to read Canada's literature as derivative creative expressions of countries that know nothing of how nature or the supernatural might be interpreted by those who actually come from here. I am sure the aboriginal peoples of Canada would object to Parr Traill's ignorance of the supernatural; they have borne witness to the presence of forces in this land for thousands of years. But since aboriginal scholars and storytellers were nowhere near the critical table at the time English departments began to spring up in this country, we have taken Parr Traill's words at face value and more or less carried on like proper colonial academics.

But what if we approached our creative close encounters through the lens of an animist or aboriginal understanding of the land? Perhaps the outcome might be different. Perhaps we might view our writers and stories in a more favourable light, and afford them more space in our high school and university curricula.

Take New Brunswick author Charles G.D. Roberts's turn-of-the-century novel, The Heart of the Ancient Wood, published in 1900. It is about a young girl named Miranda who grows up in a remote cabin in northern New Brunswick with her mother. A prominent aspect of the story, though, is Roberts's portrayal of Miranda as a supernatural figure, capable of communicating with the woodland creatures around her. Birds perch on her shoulder and squirrels eat out of her hands; she stops a charging moose and chases away a lynx, both without the use of weapons. At one point the narrator even describes her kinship with the animals as a "semi-occult experience." Miranda's closeness to the earth and respect for the spirits of the land thus enable her to communicate with nature on a different level than the rest of the human beings around her.

Equally important to the narrative is Miranda's friendship with a she-bear, named Kroof, who follows her around year after year until a series of circumstances forces Miranda to choose between her love for Kroof and the life of a hunter named Young Dave Titus. The ending bears no resemblance to classic 19th-century class-based British or American romance; instead, Roberts offers us a distinctly Canadian tragedy--the traumatic wrenching of Miranda away from her deeply mystical connection to the landscape: "You've killed the old life I loved," she cries as Young Dave reaches out to embrace her.

Several decades after Roberts published The Heart of the Ancient Wood, in 1976, Marian Engel wrote another version of the cabin encounter, complete with her own Miranda and Kroof. But Engel took Roberts's attempt at articulating animism a step further in her Governor General's Award-winning novel, Bear. Lou, a young librarian and archivist, is sent out to a remote island house to catalogue some old papers for the local historical institute. There she encounters a male bear on a chain in the yard, which the previous owner attempted to domesticate. She also learns that an old aboriginal woman from a nearby reserve comes and sits with the bear, sometimes for hours, to visit and talk with it. …