Knopf Canada, September 6, 2016.
This novel is set in the Thompson-Shuswap region of British Columbia, and it is saturated with the history of the place. Woven throughout with First Nations mythology and spirituality, it is at heart a family history that bridges the white and Native communities that reside on either side of a powerful river.
The story goes back generations to the arrival of a man named Eugene Robertson in 1860 – he came to the fictional Lightning River for the gold rush and stayed as one of the original homesteaders. Throughout the novel, we learn how his life became entwined with that of a First Nations woman, and how their troubled relationship affected the two groups of people for generations to come.
While the gold rush was the beginning of the end for the river, it is now fully entrenched in environmental disaster. In the present day, Hannah and Brandon are sister and brother, descendants of Eugene Robertson. They are struggling to save the river’s ecosystem by carrying salmon across the shallows to their traditional spawning grounds. The group helping the salmon is part of a larger protest against the development of the area, led by their indigenous neighbour Alex. In contrast, Hannah’s grandfather Stew is a staunch supporter of development, and he happens to own the land that is in contention.
When Stew and Brandon almost drown in the river during the protest, both of them are drastically changed. Alex believes that the river’s spirit has taken over Brandon’s body, while his own spirit is lost and wandering. In the world of western medicine, Brandon is diagnosed with schizophrenia, which his mother also supposedly suffered from – however, Alex blames her condition on the spirits as well. In any case, Brandon experiences extreme confusion and begins to doubt his reality. His visions embody the myths and traditions of Shuswap culture, and illustrate a tragic history. For Hannah, it seems like her own family’s mistakes will repeat until they get it right.
Although the Lightning River is fictional and this novel contains elements of magic realism, the ecological crisis in the Thompson-Shuswap area is very real. Hannah, Brandon and Alex represent a younger generation that must work to find a way forward – a way to preserve the river’s ecosystem while blending white and First Nations cultures. The Spawning Grounds explores cross-cultural concerns that are defined by a common cause – the preservation of the spawning salmon and the ecosystem that they represent. There is a transformative path here towards hope for the future, and a way of working together. My only complaint is that the overarching message of the novel eclipses the development of plot and character, but overall, an interesting read.
I received this novel from Knopf Canada and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.