the canterbury trail

Reviewed by Cory Willard

8 july 2014       archive

He sounded pedantic even to himself, but good writing, as he'd always told his students, was in the details, in all those little decisions that no one else thought about. In fact, good writing—truly seamless—writing allowed a reader the privilege of not noticing" (1).
This statement on detailed writing from Angie Abdou's second novel is really the mission statement for her writing in The Canterbury Trail as a whole. The novel contains a plot that could nearly be summed up in a sentence (perhaps in a long one), but the place-based details and the fully formed and interesting characters the author forces together create an enjoyable richness for the reader.

The novel's chapters are arranged from the viewpoints of the different characters and there is not one constant cohesive point of view throughout the novel's 277 pages. This comes across as a particularly smart choice considering the novel's focus on character, detail, and place rather than on plot. Each chapter begins with an avatar for the character from whose viewpoint it is told and an artifact that is linked to them in some way. These artifacts range from recipes to urban dictionary definitions and drinking styles. All of this material, as simple of a primer as it is for each chapter, is a creative way of further developing and knowing each character.

The cast of The Canterbury Trail are all disparate members of the small ski town Coalton, (read as: Fernie, British Columbia), attempting to make one last springtime ascent and glorious descent down the local mountain. For anyone familiar with the Canadian Rockies, and I suspect ski towns as a whole, the entire cast of characters is here. You have the extreme sports stoner types, the ski bum turned serious real estate developer, hippies, lesbians, a big city cougar, a hot snowboarder chick, and snowmobiler rednecks all trying to claim ownership of this place in their own way and with their own justifications.

Interestingly, though not surprisingly given the nod to Cheryll Glotfelty in the acknowledgements, the novel is a smart and fun example of place-based fiction that is quite rich in material for any ecocritic, and the conflicts between characters in the novel will be extremely familiar to anyone from western North America. On page 2, the opening character—a retired English teacher turned hermit—sets the stage for the environmental conflicts that are to follow. He describes a novel he once intended to write as being "about small-town mountain life, the competing claims that resource management, tourism and recreation made on this finite Canadian space, sort of Stephen Leacock meets Michel Foucault meets David Suzuki." As with the passage about details in writing, this quotation foretells the pages of conflict, care, and perspectives that follow.

None of the characters are without conflicting feelings and beliefs regarding Coalton. Even the crazy hermit Heinz, who appears to be the most "wild" or "natural" of the characters in the novel, exhibits the conquering frontier mentality that has characterized the history of the west. He is obsessed with leaving signs as a monument to his existence; they let people know that he has been there, that he has named the place, and that he has some sort of claim to it. Even he who lives most intertwined with the mountain cannot wholly divorce himself from the idea of ownership of nature. This theme is carried on throughout the novel and played out in metaphors of virginity, mounting the mountain, the sexuality of nature, and the endless pioneering desire of being the first to leave tracks of their conquest—or to exclude others from a claim to place.

The human relationship to Coalton and the mountains is further complicated by several other competing forces. For example, industry vs. tourism, economic health vs. ecological/spiritual health, high-paying mining jobs vs. low-paying tourism jobs, etc. As the characters represent a cross section of Coalton society, their viewpoints on the meaning of place likewise represents the competing voices all screaming for some say in the exploitation, development, sustainability, and stewardship of the area—both monetarily and spiritually. The novel undeniably contains a rich complexity of thought-provoking talking points on the meanings of place.

As the characters constantly fight over the narratives regarding Coalton's past and future, the reader gets a look at the participatory nature of place making, mythology, and storytelling. Each character possesses his or her own story and; therefore, individual perceptions of Coalton's meaning and value. As the characters smash heads like bighorn sheep, the reader also gets a glance into the heated world of town hall meetings, industry, and environmental activism. And just like real world debates, the characters' "constant struggle stem[s] from their love of this place. The rednecks, the hippies, the ski bums—each claiming the land as their own, insisting upon the right to name it, the power to decide how to use it" (240).

In the end, we find out that no one really has supreme power over nature and in the vastness of time and space, our bickering is really somewhat irrelevant. Towards the closing of the novel, which blurs the line between comedy and tragedy, Heinz references Macbeth, stating that: "All the world's a stage […] but not always in the way the Great Bard meant. More often than they think, humans are no more than a passive audience. The mountain, it appears, has called the final curtain on this performance" (274). Perhaps all of our sound and fury really does signify nothing.

Ultimately, The Canterbury Trail makes an interesting point about the necessity of respecting, revering, and fearing nature as well as about the misleading idea that we can own and control something as grand as a mountain. The tragic ending calls to mind ecocritics like Jim Dodge who see environmental conservation as a selfish human necessity, or perhaps more poignantly, comedian George Carlin who once humorously ranted about how we'll all be dead before we ever have a chance to kill the planet. As hard as we may try, Ecocriticism aside, Abdou's novel is incredibly funny, enjoyable, and like a trip down the slopes, never boring. The pages are full of drugs, booze, and sex, but it never feels gratuitous. The words always come across as true to life and honest, never feeling like they are shying away or showing off.

Abdou, Angie. The Canterbury Trail. Victoria, BC: Brindle & Glass, 2011. 277 pp.

Copyright © 2014 by Cory Willard

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