Gail Anderson-Dargatz, The Spawning Grounds

Gail Anderson-Dargatz, author of the fine new novel The Spawning Grounds, has been fortunate to find a great many readers over the years. Her books have become staples of bookstore shelves, book clubs, bestseller lists, and second-hand book sales, and her fans are devoted. Readers go to Anderson-Dargatz for many different things, particularly her characters and her family dynamics, but it's a reviewer's truism that she's brilliant on sense of place. In her recent novels, the Shuswap region, where I grew up, is somehow made more real and valuable through being fictionalized.

Writing in Quill and Quire, for example, Dana Nelson suggests that The Spawning Grounds is "a fine addition to Anderson-Dargatz's ongoing efforts to mine a vein of rich and complex cultural geography." In the Georgia Straight, Robert Wiersema enthuses that in this novel, "writer and teacher Gail Anderson-Dargatz returns to her beloved Shuswap. It's a region that the author has, over her body of work, brought to vivid, magical life."

I wish I bought this praise. I do. I enjoy falling into her books, when I can let go and fall into them, and I can see why people fall into them, but it's almost impossible for me to suspend enough disbelief to take actual pleasure in them.

When I reviewed Turtle Valley seven years ago, I said that I'd likely grumble again about the representation of place when I read The Spawning Grounds, but I was only partly right. My feelings have moved a long way past grumbling.

Bear with me, because it's going to take a bit before I get somewhere meaningful. Before we talk about The Spawning Grounds, and why I'm uncomfortable that you're reading this novel at all, we need to talk about salal.

Though it's ubiquitous on the south coast of BC, salal just doesn't grow in the BC interior. At least, the definitive electronic atlas of BC flora shows only a few isolated hits east of the Coast Range, and at least one of those (in the middle of the Cariboo Mountains Provincial Park) seems to be a geotagging error that substitutes Emery Creek for Emory Creek.

In other words, it's not just that it seemed weird to me personally, since I grew up in Turtle Valley, that The Spawning Grounds would twice mention salal as a local plant. Instead, it's incorrect both botanically and ecologically:
They [two eagles locked together by their talons] flapped and hopped through boxwood and salal as they tried, unsuccessfully, to untangle themselves one from the other. (p71)
Hannah had held on, whipped and bloodied by branches, until she finally fell [from her horse], tumbling downhill through snowy boxwood and kinnikinnick, prickly Oregon grape and salal. (p160)
Boxwood doesn't grow wild at all in BC, either, and it hasn't been naturalized. Anderson-Dargatz may mean false box, though, which does grow in the Shuswap, and in this novel mostly she gets the plants right. Come to that, maybe she means saskatoon rather than salal, since they both have flat leaves and purple berries, even if it's completely impossible to confuse them for each other.

Today I've spent about 45 minutes poring over online images of the Seymour River that empties into Shuswap Lake in Seymour Arm, like on this page. Seymour Arm feels a lot like a Vancouver Island landscape, and if there was going to be undocumented salal along the north side of Shuswap Lake, it'd be there, but no luck. She's made it up, or imagined it, or transferred to the Shuswap elements of her time in Errington on Vancouver Island, another place where I've got deep family roots. In any case, she's wrong about this aspect of this particular place.

Readers don't care about the details, I'm an enviro nerd, shut up and enjoy yourself: I get it.

But according to virtually every reviewer, Anderson-Dargatz is a novelist of place, the premier novelist of this particular place, and she gets the vegetation wrong. If she transports salal from the BC coast, and imagines boxwood where there simply isn't any, or misidentifies both species, then what else is she getting wrong?

I'm feeling delusions of grandeur, so I'll just say it: these errors are symptomatic of what today I'm taking to be a fundamental falsity to this book.

Maybe the botany is forgivable, something only the nerds will care about.

The topographical liberties: who hasn't wanted to drop an invented river and mountain into the inconvenient geography upon which our fiction grows?

But at bottom, The Spawning Grounds owes its life to what the book characterizes as Secwepemc story, and to the afterlife of that story in the represented settler community. The acknowledgements section says only that Anderson-Dargatz finds some of her inspiration from a story retold briefly by James Teit in his 1909 book The Shuswap, edited by Franz Boas. No Indigenous informants or contacts are identified in Anderson-Dargatz's acknowledgements. How can one not worry about cultural appropriation with a story like this, given Secwepemc history?

The plot has a lot of moving pieces, but basically, a spiritual figure lives in the water of the fictional Lightning River, with power over lightning and fish and human lives. The Spawning Grounds grows from and retells an ancient story of this figure having long ago brought down a cataclysmic storm to save the salmon. In the novel's contemporary world, there's an ongoing protest against a fish-threatening development project. The descendants of one of the first European settlers still live in the area, across the river from the descendants of the Secwepemc people with whom Eugene Robertson worked, fucked, and fought. The question, basically, is whether the ancient story will be realized once again, and if so, then at what cost.

I'm leaving out great swathes of plot, obviously, and I'm completely sympathetic to the novel's settler politics: against development, in favour of salmon conservation, and in memory of both the historic and the ongoing wrongs of settler colonialism.

But this allegedly Secwepemc story, though, is killing me.

I haven't tried to contact anyone in Secwepemc circles on the story's origins, because I don't know anyone there any longer, but here's where I find myself standing at present.

If the geography and topography are fictional, then it's not a Secwepemc story from and about the represented land. If it's genuinely a Secwepemc story that Anderson-Dargatz has transplanted into a fictional geography, then  unless she's done it with Secwepemc help, I don't know that it's a real story any longer, and the acknowledgements section is silent on that possibility. If she learned the story from Teit and Boas without Secwepemc advice, then I don't see any way to redeem the novel.

Although I'm open to correction, it seems to me that the most likely explanation is that Anderson-Dargatz has invented the story and called it Secwepemc. If that's true, then she's imposed a colonial story on both the real and the imagined Secepwemc people, and that's unacceptable.

The novel's represented settler politics (stop developers! keep salmon alive! regret colonialism!) are just the kind of politics that settler readers should appreciate, and I do, I really do.

But unless someone knows something I don't about how The Spawning Grounds uses what seems to be allegedly Secwepemc story, I can't see this novel as anything other than neo-colonialist and hence repressive. If someone shoots me information I can use to come to a different conclusion, I'll publicly confess my sins, but for me the bottom line is that your only reasonable option is  to read Richard Wagamese's utterly phenomenal Medicine Walk instead.


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