The events take place near one of the spawning grounds of the sockeye salmon in British Columbia. The river, once teeming with fish, is dying, its flow reduced to a trickle because of erosion caused by human activities like ranching, logging and mining. The main characters, Hannah and Bran, are the descendants of Eugene Robertson, the first white settler to homestead in the area, “the first to take down trees on the thin strip of river plain; the first to put up fences; the first to water his livestock in the river and pollute its waters.”
The novel begins with Bran falling into the river trying to rescue his grandfather, Stew Robertson. When he emerges for the water, Bran is changed. His strange behaviour has some people, including Bran’s father Jesse, arguing that he is schizophrenic, like his deceased mother Elaine. But Alex, Hannah’s Indian love interest, suggests Bran is possessed by a “water mystery,” a river spirit who needs a human body to fulfill a mission.
It is not just the river that needs to be reborn; many of the characters are struggling to renew themselves. Jesse moved from the area once Elaine died years earlier, and left his children to the care of his father Stew. When Stew is hospitalized, Jesse finally returns reluctantly and is faced with trying to answer a question: “’Why would any parent abandon their kid?’” Will he stay and try to re-establish a relationship with his children or will he, as Hannah suspects, run as he did in the past? Hannah, a college student, is described as possessing “the uncertainty of a girl who didn’t yet know herself.” Gina, the Robertsons’ neighbour and one of Jesse’s former lovers, struggles between staying with her husband in an unsatisfactory marriage or reuniting with Jesse who is not known for his faithfulness and commitment.
Central to the story is a Shuswap myth. When Eugene arrived on the river, “one of the Indians had warned him to stay out of these waters or he would be taken by the spirit that haunted the river at this place.” Later, it is explained that the spirit is that of a salmon boy who, angry at the senseless destruction of the salmon, in the past took revenge by “[cleansing] this place of its sickness.” Is it this spirit that has taken control of Bran? Has it come back to take revenge once again?
Unfortunately, the foreshadowing is rather heavy-handed. When Bran emerges from the water, he crawls up “like a lungfish making its clumsy journey onto land” and wheezes “as if breath itself was something foreign to him” and walks “as if his legs were new to him.” The reader must suspend disbelief and accept that there is a gateway to the salmon world in the river and that the salmon boy has taken over Bran’s body, though “it would be sometime before he was strong enough to wrangle full control.” Actually, the reader must believe there is an “assortment of ancient spirits that populated the river valley, all of them part animal and part man.”
Suspense is also created rather heavy-handedly. Alex warns, “’If that water mystery has him, if Brandon’s soul is out walking, he could die.’” This danger is emphasized as flashbacks to the consequences of earlier “possessions” are revealed. Then the suspense is ramped up with statements like, “’it may already be too late for the rest of us as well.” Suspense is also created by withholding information. For example, Alex tells Hannah a story about the water mystery but then says, “’When you’re ready to hear me out . . . I’ll tell you the rest of the story.’” Later, Alex tells her the rest of the story and advises her to “’Ask the mystery’” but withholds crucial information: “’we’ve got to make sure Bran’s spirit is still here first’” After revealing this important step, he adds,” ‘And it may already be too late to do anything.’” This technique left me feeling manipulated.
A major theme is that man and animals have lost their connection. An Indian elder mentioned that in the past, “’when animal and man were still family, a man’s soul could flit away as an owl, or the spirit of a bear could slip under a man’s skin.’” This connection has been severed though, from the beginning, the interdependence of man and animal is emphasized. The narrative is prefaced by a quotation: “Without the salmon, the land and the rivers would only survive as a corpse survives the death of the nervous system and the departure of the spirit.” Later a full explanation is given: “Every living thing around them depended on the return of the salmon [to the spawning grounds where they lay and fertilize the eggs before dying]. The rotting fish would nourish the water this fall and again in early spring when the sun warmed what was left of the sockeye’s frozen bodies. Their flesh would feed the tiny creatures that in turn fed the sockeye fry when they burst from their stone nests come spring. In this way, the sockeye fed their young with their own bodies and were resurrected within their children’s flesh. If not enough sockeye returned during this run, if not enough died here, the river would starve, the lake would starve, the eagles and bears and the land around them would starve.” The novel is like a fable with a moral at the end.
The novel has a message that needs to be heeded, but the delivery of that message lacks subtlety. What needs to be done to help the salmon is obvious from the beginning because Hannah outlines the necessary steps to her father when he first arrives. The unwillingness of people to listen means there is a predictability to the sequence of events, but the ending then seems rather sentimental.
Some of the characterization is problematic. Jesse’s behaviour when his wife was dying and his virtual abandonment of his children for years show him to be an untrustworthy and selfish person, yet Gina , who admits to needing a sense of security, is drawn to him? Stew believes the stories of a native elder, but has little respect for Indians? Hannah “disliked her father when he was high” yet when he offered her a toke, “She took the joint, breathed in deeply and held it before exhaling and handing it back to him. . . . [and] Hannah took the joint from him before he’d offered it again”?
I can see this book being used in literature classes in high school. Students would not have difficulty identifying its themes and analyzing its various elements. The novel has a relevance to today’s issues (e.g. man’s degradation of the environment, relationships between whites and First Nation peoples) and has characters with whom teenaged readers can identify.
Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.