Song Over Quiet Lake

Reviewed: April 27, 2010
By: Sarah Felix Burns
Publisher: Second Story Press
271 pages, $18.95

The story begins with Father MacAvoy, an aging priest who had once been on staff at Choutla School near Carcross. In his declining years this kindly man is wracked with guilt over the whole matter of residential schools, Not that he ever did anything wrong himself, but he felt urges, and had to restrain himself, and he had some knowledge of things that happened there. He was particularly attracted to a young girl from Quiet Lake named Lydie and when he realized it, he put in for a transfer.

When we meet Father MacAvoy he is trying to drown himself in a bowl of soup. Not because of his unrequited lust. Something he did later in life bothers him far more.

In spite of that opening, this really isn’t that kind of novel, In fact there there are so many shifts in point of view, the priest’s being the only third person narrative in the lot, that it’s hard to make out just what kind of book this is until you’re quite far into it.

There are two main characters though, the people we spend the most time with, even though almost everyone with a first name gets at least a chapter to give us their reflections on events.

The first of these is Lydie Jim - yes, that same Lydie - who is eighty-two years old when we meet her sometime in the 1990s. Lydie is a smart-alecky old lady who was born on a trapline near Quiet Lake, spent some of her family life in Teslin, and attended Choutla School. Fortunately for her, she says, she wasn’t taken too young and so had the chance to learn some traditional ways and stories when she was old enough to remember them.

Not that traditional life is all good. Traditional life gets you married to your dead husband’s older brother, one mean man, when you’re hardly out of childhood, not yet twenty. But that wasn’t all bad either, as it gave her the two sons that she dotes on. One’s in prison though, and the other drinks way too much.

Lydie is taking a course at UBC through an elders’ program and that’s where she meets Sylvia, who is assigned to be her helper as part of her “research assistant” position. Sylvia is a very conflicted young woman who blames herself for the disappearance of her little brother when she was just a kid. The relationship between the young woman and the older one is supposed to be strictly professional, but if you think that is going to get in the way of Lydie being grandmotherly, you haven’t been paying attention.

Sylvie has a “partner,” as the fashion is among some people, named River (The things some parents do to their children, she thinks) and they are locked in a not entirely satisfactory relationship in which he tends to treat her like a research project.

Sylvie has never known her actual father and the combination of uncertainty, dissatisfaction and long term guilt is playing havoc with her psyche just weeks from graduation.

The negative side of residential school comes out mostly through our visits with Mitchell, Lydie’s oldest son, in Matsqui Correctional Institute. He has a new therapist, a young woman with a different approach to dealing with anger management. The chapter is an effective look at some nasty stuff, but it does seem a bit contrived.

Part way through the book Sylvia gets a line on Pierre, her birth father, but her attempt at a telephone contact goes badly and leads to her eventual meltdown, a drunken binge that puts her in the hospital. She is rescued from the street and taken there by Jonah, Lydie’s younger son, for whom she has some very confused feelings.

It’s probably a weakness of the book that you can see this relationship coming from the moment that Sylvia and Jonah first meet at Lydie’s place. Jonah’s back story includes a marriage gone sour and the loss of a child to social services when he was younger. He has no idea where that child is now or what became of her, but we do by the end of the book when she signs off her shift after the death of the priest who once lusted in his heart after the grandmother she never knew.

This book does have a happy ending but it’s one that takes a long time to develop. The epilogue, set four years after the events in the bulk of the story, is in Jonah’s voice and ties up a lot of loose ends.

The author, who now lives in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, grew up in a village in northern Ontario near Sault Ste. Marie. She has a degree in women’s studies and history from the University of British Columbia and a masters degree in social work from the University of Toronto. Lydie’s character is based on a Yukon Tlingit woman she met at UBC.