By Sarah Swan (scroll down for a bio of this author, and how to share your own reviews)
After high school I backpacked across Europe – Eurail pass, hostels, the usual. My mission was to get to know Europe by reading its authors – Joyce in Dublin, Hugo in Paris, and so on. It was a mostly successful mission, though unfortunately the experience of reading The Castle in Prague was all the justification my young, pretentious self needed to start overusing the word “Kafkaesque.”
I’m much older and a little less pretentious now, but still believe in the importance of learning place through literature. I moved to Yellowknife a few years ago. Among the first books I picked up was Richard Van Camp’s 2009 collection of short stories, The Moon of Letting Go, the third of his eight books. Van Camp is prolific – he writes children’s lit and graphic novels as well. He’s an amazing oral storyteller, focusing mostly on the lives of the people of Denendeh, homeland of the Dene (Tlicho) Nation.
His characterizations of young men navigating the road to manhood are near perfect. Kevin is a dope selling pill popper who is “trying to change” but is failing miserably, while longing to be strong in the right ways, longing to be good. Gerald has an ego that swells and shrinks with the same rapidity as his hard-ons. “I got quite the tool here that will last me for life and lead me through a field of women,” he brags. A few pages later he slinks away from a fight, intimidated by the physiques of his opponents.
His female characters are less endearing. Without fail they are wiser and stronger than the men in their lives, but they don’t have the same wit. Too burdened for wit perhaps, Celestine, the long-suffering domestic abuse survivor in the title story “The Moon of Letting Go,” embraces spiritual danger to earn redemption and good medicine for her family.
Van Camp’s stories feel easy and conversational, are carried along by dark humour, detailed descriptions of sexual conquest, and 1980’s era imagery – Skinny Puppy and Samantha Fox references included. Justin, a character in the story Dogrib Midnight Runners, was spotted streaking down the highway. The awed narrator marvels at the naked runner’s freedom. “I seen his puffy hair bob with each bounce and I saw the moonlight shine off his glasses … a smile like you see in church from someone who totally believes.”
This is the undercurrent of these stories: there is beauty in his character’s lives – despite the sexual abuse, struggles with addiction, and violence that plague their communities. Beauty is everywhere in Van Camp’s imagery – in the swimming green feathers of the northern lights, in the violin solo of a Whitesnake song, in the communal, remembered innocence of babyhood. “Whites, Natives, Inuit – oh we all laughed together when we seen each other,” says the tender-hearted, glue-sniffing protagonist in “Show Me Yours,” “there are just so many beautiful babies inside us all.”
The stories are brazenly intimate. Reading them felt slightly voyeuristic at times, because, let’s face it, it is very unlikely a 42-year-old white woman, new to the North, would ever be invited to hang out with a Gerald or a Kevin. But there I was, in the middle of their party, privy to their deepest vulnerabilities, wanting to school them hard on how to respect women, wanting to wash their disgusting dirty socks, to knock their male egos down a few pegs, or to build them up. But that’s the power of good writing, right? It helps us understand others.
I’ve read more Van Camp, but you never forget your first. His new book, Moccasin Square Gardens, drops this spring.
The Moon of Letting Go
Richard Van Camp
Enfield & Wizenty, an imprint of Great Plains Productions, 2009
Sarah Swan is a freelance art writer who moved to Yellowknife from Winnipeg in 2017. Her bylines include The Winnipeg Free Press, Maclean’s Magazine, Canadian Art, Galleries West, and more. She has published poetry with Turnstone Press, Parameter Press, and CV2, and a few embarrassing short stories with Broken Pencil.
Got a Northbook you’d like to review? We welcome guest posts, especially rebuttals. saraminogue @ gmail.com.