My mom sent me a copy of Dave Bidini’s book Midnight Light shortly after it came out last year. There are not many books published about my town (Yellowknife), so she could be pretty sure I’d read it.
I did, with great interest. The book chronicles Bidini’s summer of 2015, in which he joins the staff of the Yellowknifer, the local paper, in order to write about the town, the paper and the characters he meets. Chief among these characters is John McFadden, then a reporter at the paper, whose run-ins with the police lead to a fairly ridiculous altercation in which McFadden is charged with obstruction of justice for attempting to take photos of a police search that breaks out while McFadden is taking a smoke break outside the Black Knight pub.
This story interested me for a couple of reasons. First, I’m a reporter, and therefore nosy, especially about other reporters. Second, I was working as a producer at the CBC at the time, and this story troubled me. On the one hand, it appeared as though the local police were interfering with the noble pursuit of journalism. On the other hand, John McFadden.
As Bidini chronicles at length in his book, McFadden is a fairly unique character who got into this mess after a long series of unpleasant personal interactions with various police officers. As the story came out, I dreaded the call I expected, from the CBC in Toronto, saying: “Police cracking down a reporter? Why aren’t we covering this?” and having to hear my own weak answer: “It’s only John McFadden!” (In the end, I phoned myself, spoke to an editor there who said, “Oh yeah, I used to work with him. Keep it local.”)
I read the book in two sittings and enjoyed it immensely. It’s nice to be written about, particularly in a handsome edition like this (McClelland & Stewart), and especially when the book opens by pointing out your city is the least celebrated capital in the North (take that Whitehorse and Iqaluit). Bidini, who’s written nearly a dozen books now, is a good writer and reading this book gave me new appreciation for the things that are around me, every day.
His description of the Northwords writing festival, which first brought him to town, perfectly captured the festival I attended three years later. I liked the history of Yellowknife newspapers too.
Bidini, as he describes in his lengthy homages to the Yellowknifer newsroom, is also attempting to become a journalist, and so he tries this out, interviewing various locals who tell him all kinds of things they would never commit to print themselves, which is kind of juicy (though I could have done without the details on Mike Bryant’s foreskin). (Or could I?)
All in all, I’d call this a good read.
Then I went to my book club meeting about it.
There were hints that the reviews there would not be as warm. I knew that my friend Katherine’s book club had also read this book, and had universally hated it. That club is mainly born and bred Yellowknifers, a group that’s often uninterested in the old outsider perspective.
But I was surprised at the level of distrust and anger people in my own book club (professional white women, mainly moms, in their 30 and 40s) felt towards the author.
I had gone to Bidini’s Yellowknife book launch in October, where I found him to be funny, humble and enjoyably self-deprecating, as indeed he is in the book (typical example: “… it was exactly this kind of southern-bias bullshit I hoped to shed during my time in the North”).
The image was at odds with the villain I was hearing about now.
I had noticed several small mistakes. Betchko, instead of Behchoko, which itself is a bastardization of Behchokǫ̀. There is still quite a bit of variation in place names, and finding the correct syntax could legitimately flummox an outsider, but Betchko really is inexplicable.
There was more: Lawrence Neyally instead of Nayally, which is confusing because it bleeds into a whole different set of Neyelles. Reference to “the late” Bill Braden, who’s still alive and well (and who, oddly, is quoted as though living). Slave Lake as shorthand for Great Slave Lake, which nobody says: it’s Great Slave Lake, “the big lake” or no lake at all. The government wharf, instead of dock. “What even is a wharf?” someone asked, perhaps disingenuously.
And a major sticking point: the qualifier after the community name Tulita, as “formerly Fort Norman.” In Yellowknife, Tulita is Tulita. Nobody remembers the name Fort Norman; it’s simply not relevant. One book clubber, born and raised in Yellowknife, cited this repeatedly, using it as a jumping off point to denounce the entire book as a worthless colonialist project and, worse than that, offensive. (If this was the gap between me and her, I thought, how big must the gap be between me and the Indigenous people of the North?)
As a reporter myself, I know typos. Mistakes get made. But this conversation was a sobering reminder to all journalists and writers: check the spellings of names, places, organizations. Your credibility depends on it.
There are a few weaknesses I found on my own. On the journalism side again, I was irritated by those paeans to the Yellowknifer and Northern News Services. I loved the inside peak at the newsroom, but Bidini makes much of the fact that small town newspaper are dying across Canada (they are, and this should be chronicled) without acknowledging the weirdly artificial economy of the North that allows this paper to carry on as though it’s 1985. It’s no great feat of our town to keep a paper alive; it’s there because of the plush government advertising that’s too out of date to move online. [Having wrote this earlier, I’m now wondering if Yellowknife’s remoteness isn’t also a protective factor against rapacious media companies trying to squeeze the profit out of these papers for themselves.]
There’s also a pretty weak chapter about mining, and the story breaks down altogether when Bidini heads out of town (courtesy of Northwest Territories Tourism; your tax dollars at work) and visits Fort Simpson, then Deline, then Tuktoyaktuk. (A few of the book clubbers liked these chapters best, especially those who hadn’t been to these places — yep, that’s ironic — and I will say these chapters contain more of that lovely writing.)
This book is what first set me thinking about starting this blog. For such a large project (relocating to Yellowknife, joining a newsroom, travelling the N.W.T.) the errors are small, but the impact of them is large indeed, and someone really should point them out, just in case there’s a future edition.
But, for anyone new to town, or interested in Yellowknife or keen on John McFadden (who, spoiler alert, was acquitted of all charges and claims to have learned from the experience), I’ll call this a good northern read, with some caveats.
By Dave Bidini
McClelland & Stewart, 2018
This review was reprinted by CBC North on April 28, 2019.
I should also add how much the publisher of the Yellowknifer disliked it (my review, I mean, not Bidini’s book), though he did thank me later for the opportunity to spout off about his paper.
Correction: Bidini chronicles his summer of 2015, not 2014, as previously written. Thanks to a loyal reader for pointing that out.