McClelland and Stewart, 1998
First published in: The Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review By: Kerry Riley
Jack Hodgins is the second Canadian writer to be reviewed this summer whose most recent book examines, among other things, man’s place in nature. Like Greg Hollingshead, author of The Healer, Hodgins, in his book Broken Ground remains ambivalent about the wilderness, uncertain that man is a child of nature and can rightfully claim refuge there. There may be something about us humans, he seems to say, that offends nature. As one of his more thoughtful characters puts it, “Something is trying to tell me it doesn’t want me here.”
“Here” is the Returned Soldier Settlement of Portuguese Creek, on Vancouver Island, an area of second growth forest bequeathed by the Dominion of Canada, in a moment of misguided inspiration, to solders returning from World War One. Unfortunately, as one inhabitant muses, “the man who tested the soil was incompetent, drunk or a liar (…) if this was supposed to be our country’s thank-you a man could only wonder if he’s been made of fool of.”
The story centres around several characters — Matthew Pearson, a gentle ex-teacher and veteran, haunted by his war experiences, Johanna Seyerstad, the settlement’s school teacher, who has waited six years for her husband to return from the war, Charlie MacIntosh, a boy in the community, Nora Macken, a young woman who has come from Owen Sound with her family, and John Wyatt Taylor, her abandoned suitor, also from Owen Sound, who has, two years later, ridden across the country to find her.
Most of the men in the story are veterans, attempting to heal war wounds of one sort of another. Experiences in the trenches had stripped many of their optimism, their belief in human nature, and their ability to dream. Hardly suitable candidates for a great pioneering adventure! As Matthew put it, regarding conversations he had with Johanna, “Sometimes I let her try to convince me there was still some sense in teaching youngsters the poems of Kipling, say, for the pleasure of imagining a life where I might still believe she was right.”
Although many came to this “Eden” looking for a balm for their wounds, the wilderness provides no nurture. Their piece of ground must be wrestled from the forest, and through their efforts and sacrifice, imprinted with their humanity. It is not until Taylor, an enigmatic, saviour-like explosives expert rides into town that the settlers gain any real hope of winning their war against the tree stumps. A man can, it seems, by giving respect, gain nature’s respect, if not her love.
The book begins with the little community in a quandary. Charlie MacIntosh’s father has been killed in a blasting accident, attempting to clear his land of tree stumps. The problem is that the settlement is so new and the inhabitants of such diverse backgrounds, that there is no universally accepted procedure to be followed in the face of death. There is also no church. As Johanna says, “Everybody’s from somewhere else (…) we have nothing in common here,” making it painfully clear that there is much more to a community than a shared location. By the time the same group of people gather for another funeral near the end of the book, they have forged the bonds of a real community. They have brought a church to their settlement, marking the land with something quintessentially human. They have also been through hell together in the form of a fatal forest fire which decimated the area.
Ironically, as many commit to a dream of the future, two of the main characters must relinquish theirs. Taylor, who traveled three thousand miles on horseback to pursue a life with Nora Macken, must deal with her rejection of him. Johanna Seyerstad, who has waited so long for her own husband, must eventually accept that he has been killed in the war and let go of the dream of his return.
The fire, from the beginning, haunts the edge of the story, brewing malevolently a few miles away, fouling the air with smoke, and eventually, roaring onto centre stage. Until this tragedy, the sense of community has been uneasy and fragile, the inhabitants’ commitment to it threatening to dissolve at any moment.
The war, like the fire, is a menacing presence in the story, smouldering in the memories of the men who have returned. An account of Matthew’s harrowing descent into insanity occupies a portion of the book’s middle section, sharing space with an horrific account of the fire. By superimposing these two tragedies, linking the immediate violence and horror of the fire, in which a child’s life is lost, to the accounts of the war, Hodgins manages to significantly heighten the impact of both.
This tale packs a big emotional wallop — set aside a day or two to brood over it. The ending, however, brings hope. Out of the fire comes a community with new solidarity, the wilderness, for the most part (there is still one giant stump that remains undefeated) has withdrawn to a respectful distance, Taylor and Johanna find the courage to begin new lives. Optimism triumphs over despair — not a false, gaudy optimism based on illusion, but a smaller, more finely tempered optimism maintained in the face of a real understanding of life.