31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 6: “The Snow Fence” by David Carpenter

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Welcome to Canada

David Carpenter is a rigorously masculine writer, in the tradition of macho American storytellers like Ernest Hemingway or Thomas McGuane. His subjects – hard drinking, hunting, pugilism – are reminiscent of Hemingway and his linguistic facility recalls McGuane. But Carpenter’s fictional voice, and the territory it covers, is unique to him. As Warren Cariou writes, “He is preternaturally attuned to the poetry of the vernacular and the extraordinary variety of Canadian English, and he is able to place each of his characters in their own particular spots on that lavish linguistic spectrum, so that every phrase they speak contains a compendium of information about where they come from, what they want out of life, their successes and failures.”

Mark, for example, the way a stuffy Ottawa bureaucrat demands huffy retribution against a bear that has attacked his son in Jasper Park: “How about shooting that bear before I have the lot of you fired for endangering people’s lives?” Then compare that to the rhythms of speech from the town superintendent, who wishes nothing more than to smooth things over and keep his job: “We’ll get a posse, and you come in at the end of the week when the Injun’s done his work, and by garsh … you can have your pick of the hides.” The latter, it should be noted, is said “with a toothpicky smile,” which tells a reader more about the character of the superintendent in four words than many writers could manage in four hundred.

The bureaucrat’s son was not seriously injured in the incident, which might never have occurred but for human folly. The town superintendent (he of the toothpicky smile) erected the snow fence out of fear that one of the tourists arriving on the train from Edmonton would get too close to “the army of bears” that prowls Jasper Park looking for food. The bears themselves “were never pushy about their panhandling,” and the superintendent wants to maintain their presence as a tourist attraction:

This must have been before the time when fear of lawsuits governed all social behaviour, because (knowing bears were good for the tourist business) all Thurmon Butters, the superintendent, did was put up a snow fence on the grassy area with a ten-foot opening for the bears. No people were allowed inside the fenced area. The tourists would gather on one side of the fence; the bears, on their hind legs, would rest their front paws on the top of the fence and sort of sway back and forth with the give and take of it. These fences are insidious things. They have their own logic, like slinkies.

The folly here is in Butters’ attempt to artificially curtail the natural environment, something which nearly always has negative consequences in a Carpenter story. The Ottawa boy’s injury sets off a chain of events that leads to the death of Noel Muskwa, the patriarch of the Cree family that lives alongside Barney Hetherington, the story’s narrator.

Barney narrates the story as an adult looking back on a sequence of events from his childhood. From the outset, it is apparent that the action in the story will not be entirely quotidian: “I used to tell this story during my drinking days down at the Athabasca,” Barney says. “It was a good test of people’s sobriety. The moderate drinkers would give me that Oh-sure-Barney look, and the drunks would grow wide-eyed with belief and make me feel for a while like a shaman.” The credulity of the Athabasca drunks should not be taken as a signal that Barney is an unreliable narrator; to the contrary, there is nothing in his narration to indicate that he is being anything but truthful. However, the story is told retrospectively, and the passage of time would certainly have an effect on the accuracy of a man’s memory. Moreover, Barney admits that there are aspects of his story that remain mysterious to him, even down to the present.

The central part of Barney’s recollections involves his friendship with Delphine, Noel Muskwa’s youngest daughter. When Noel was alive, he kept the family homestead just outside the town lines, so that he was not beholden to send his daughter to the local residential school. When the town expanded its boundaries, Noel would move his family further out, always remaining just the other side of the town line. After his death, Delphine’s care falls to her aging grandmother, who is less savvy about the machinations of the white man; one day a man in a car comes to the Muskwa home and takes Delphine away. When she returns, she is not the same girl Barney remembers from before her disappearance:

“Jesus ever talk to you?” she asked.

“Nope.”

“He talked to me. Once when we was singin’ and once in my dorm.”

I’d had it up to here with religion, even then.

In a sense, the residential school is analogous to the snow fence: an attempt by the white community to curtail  a foreign element and make it conform to their own desires and beliefs. But the relationship between Barney and Delphine is not so simple that it becomes merely antagonistic once the young girl begins speaking about religion. Looking back on their childhood conversation, Barney realizes that he might have misunderstood Delphine’s motivation in talking about Jesus and the afterlife; she might have been trying to ensure that their friendship would endure come what may: “[I]f I did prepare myself, she and I would go to the same place, that we belonged together, like being back in Africa, or whatever she imagined Paradise to be.” This realization on the part of the adult Barney sets him apart from men like Thurmon Butters, in that it indicates an empathy that the superintendent clearly lacks. Barney is able to imaginatively inhabit other attitudes and ideas in a way that the majority of white men in the story cannot. (When he relates his story to his brother Darryl, the brother’s reaction is telling: “You were always the one with the imagination.”)

Shortly after the conversation about Jesus, Delphine is carried off by a grizzly bear and never seen again. The local newspaper refers to a “marauding” “killer bear,” but Barney takes umbrage with this description, because in his recollection the bear was not a marauder, and Delphine ceased her screaming protests once the animal picked her up by her belt buckle (an item that once belonged to her dead father). She was taken away by the bear, but her body was never found, nor was any of her flesh, bones, or blood.

If this has more sober readers rolling their eyes and thinking, “Oh sure Barney,” consider that in Carpenter’s fictional world, it is often the drunks that get it right. There are elements in Carpenter’s story that resist understanding on a rational level – it would be wrong to call this story strictly naturalistic – and yet, the more outlandish elements all support a single authorial attitude: that those in communion with the natural world will live in harmony with it, while those who attempt to manipulate it for their own ends will be destroyed. When Barney thinks back on the events of his childhood, he feels “the whole wilderness [rearing] up to rebuke” him.

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