Yellowknife by Steve Zipp
Res Telluris, Canada, 2007
“Borders exist for a reason.”
Yellowknife is a surreal romp through the far north full of odd characters and over-flowing with tales of fishing, hunting, politics, and mythological creatures. The writing is swift and clear, like a mountain stream, and the author’s deft handling of a multitude of characters and story lines drew me in.
The story starts on a border, an appropriate place to begin at the change of the millennium. Danny, a drifter, wanders into a frontier post and is given a map. He takes off in his rattling car and is overwhelmed by a bison. Hitch-hiking into Yellowknife is just the beginning of his adventures.
Zipp uses wild ramblings, sly humor, odd bits of dialogue and descriptions of the city and land to invoke Yellowknife and the territory that surrounds it. His characters, with individual and distinct voices, lead very different lives. There is Danny, our drifter:
His mind cleared and utter calm descended upon him. He knew with complete certainty that a false move would plunge him through the ice, a fall he was unlikely to survive even if he could claw his way out. He thought of the icepicks he’d turned down at the Employment Center, and smiled. The Universe was up to its old tricks again. How was it that no scientist had ever postulated irony as a natural law? To Danny it seemed as irrefutable as gravity. Page 101.
Then there is Jonah, an old man:
In fact, Jonah’s age was an unsolvable mystery, for his birth had gone unrecorded and he had outlived all his contemporaries. His own recollections had begun to blur, merging with stories and reminiscences passed on by his father, who in turn had been a repository of tales from previous generations. Sometimes he would halt in mid-step as memory overtook him, and relive the event. He remembered wearing hareskin socks, and hunting ptarmigan with blunt arrows, and patiently digging through snowbanks for musket balls. He remembered coming upon a circle of muskoxen in the Thelon, their heads facing the wrong way – inward as though in conference.. He remembered what life was like long before Canada existed, when people still used Russian knives and the first strangers crept into the land, their names heavy on the tongue, Hurn and Makenzy and others…Page 117
and Nora, a wild-life biologist working for a government agency:
Earlier that morning, drinking a cup of herbal tea, she’d tasted not just the leaves but the faint contribution that the bark and roots had made, and even the surrounding dirt. A strong desire to lick things, to investigate surfaces with her hands and skin, sometimes came over her. When she hefted a chunk of pine into the woodstove, she sensed the drama concentrated in its rings, in the centuries of growth about to be converted into heat for the benefit of herself and her unborn child. Tears formed in her eyes at the connectivity of the world, at its intrinsic mystery and beauty. Page 189
These characters, and many others, all add their personalities to this crazy quilt of a novel. Some characters connect, some do not, but there is the constant thread of land and climate drawing it all together, and the huge presence of Great Slave Lake.
Yellowknife is not just humor and eccentricity. In telling his story Zipp manages to include local legends, government ineptitude, corporate greed, and the environmental devastation brought about by decades of mining.
There were times for me when it was all to much, I just couldn’t take it all in. I do understand the authors excitement. There is a lot to tell about the people and the history of this wild area in the far north. My favorite part of the book? The story of The Dog Who Drinks The Sky.