by BC Mitchell
159 pp (paper)
$18.75Discussions of racism, isolation, boredom, addiction and a general distrust of academic thought that permeate northern Canada are never included in glossy tourism brochures promoting the nation’s understandably wild beauty with its stunning images of cathedral-like mountains.
Obliteration, a novel by BC Mitchell, smashes through the glowing tourism mantra and forces us, Canadians and visitors alike, to confront a different sort of nation, one where pain, and the expectation of more, dominates an unrelenting land, one short step away from disaster.
Centered in a small north Ontario town, as dreary as it is forgettable, the story focuses on Ben Thompson, a white teenager who prefers spending time away from the dominant settler society even if a merciless environment includes wolves and bears and hunger and, always, the possibility of serious injury or death.
And why not? He is bullied at school and his low-life father physically and sexually abuses him at home, when he’s not passed out drunk, just like many of the neighbouring Ojibwa aboriginals.
The racism is upfront, personal and unavoidable. “Constable Dan Parker made it known around town he didn’t like Indians. He’d once kneed an Indian twice his age and half his size in the gut, then broke his nose. Just for hanging around the liquor store. Just for being Indian.”
But Ben increasingly begins to see life through an indigenous prism, and it is a better world than the grim suffering at home. He has a generous spirit and plans for at least the immediate future and has the determination to not be left behind, like just another drunken loser — aboriginal or white — on the side of a snowy road leading to nowhere.
Mitchell makes the reader like his protagonist, beginning with the first sentence: “Ben Thompson wasn’t going to leave a man to die in a snow bank.”
By his own admission, Ben “was a square peg in a round hole” and experienced the divided loyalties separating two distinct cultures.
“Sure, there was a lot of drinking on the reserve, but that was true anywhere in Matamiskamin. The Indians get a bad deal and that’s just the way it is . . . His hometown wasn’t a happy place, but he found happiness in the woods, lakes and rivers.”
As dysfunctional as Ben’s young life is, there are moments of reprieve and even hope. Against many odds, he wins an important and lucrative snowshoe race, overcomes, with the help of an attractive aboriginal woman, his sexual doubts, and lands a good summer camp job away from the catastrophe of home life.
Things continue to go wrong, however. He saves someone with a serious injury but loses his job at the camp. He goes on drunks with his aboriginal pals. The police are looking for him and put him in jail. His adopted indigenous grandmother, someone who has always been kind to him, dies.
“I always end up in shit no matter what I do,” laments Ben, not yet 17.
And he does.
Mitchell, a former journalist and communications manager for the BC Treaty Commission for 15 years, taps into his young life in a north Ontario town to tell us the remarkably sad story about Ben. He uses words sparingly in a crisp style reminiscent of a Hemingway short story.
Obliteration moves along quickly but it is a tough and uncomfortable read.
A Comox Valley resident, Mitchell never uses the word “reconciliation” in his novel. Perhaps he wrote Ben’s story long before reconciliation between First Nations and White Canadians recently became a national goal, a positive ideal after hundreds of years of needless and mean-spirited deaths, sexual assaults, land thefts and culture shaming.
Obliteration is Canada’s shit storm, and Mitchell should be applauded for unveiling a bit more of it.
Chris Rose is a former special projects editor at The Vancouver Sun