Worlds of commune-dwellers, aboriginals collide
IAN MCGILLIS, Freelance
Published: Saturday, September 13
In the summer of 1974, a group of Ojibway militants occupied
Anicinabe Park in Kenora, Ont. A chapter in Canadian history that
received little media play at the time and has been all but forgotten
since, the occupation is by no means an obvious choice to provide the
backdrop for a novel.
David Bergen thought otherwise, though, and on past form his decision
makes sense. Bergen's last novel, the Giller Prize-winning The Time
in Between, explored the post-war Vietnam that most of the world has
been content to ignore. Clearly, here is a writer with no lack of
compassion for those left out of the conventional accounts.
It should be made clear that The Retreat is not "about" the occupation.
The title refers to an apparently fictional Kenora-area commune run
by the expatriate American Doctor Amos. The kind of place still
common in the fading wake of the '60s counterculture, this one has
been founded on fuzzily defined, vaguely libertarian principles, and
attracts an assortment of lost souls and deluded romantics.
Among them is the Byrd family. Mrs. Byrd has a history of commitment
problems, and it is hoped that a few weeks in the retreat's
"spiritual oasis" might bring the family of six closer together.
Living nearby is Raymond Seymour, an 18-year-old Ojibway who a year
before had been left for dead on an island by a policeman, his crime
the impertinence of dating a white teen. Raymond's older brother
Nelson, taken away 10 years earlier to live with a white family in
Winnipeg, is now back, and the two are uneasily re-establishing their bond.
Among The Time in Between's many strengths was its deft handling of
parallel narratives, and that same skill comes in very handy here.
There's a world of difference between the hermetic setting of the
retreat, where people of varying degrees of privilege work out their
issues under the eyes of a manipulative leader, and the hardscrabble
life of the
Seymour boys. Bergen is equally attentive to both, recognizing that
certain things - the generation dynamics and coming-of-age-dramas
playing out in the Byrd family, the sibling love and rivalry of the
Seymours - are universal and timeless. When the two worlds intersect,
the flash point being the attraction between Raymond and the Byrds'
17-year-old daughter, Lizzie, the plot heads toward a tragic climax
that's no less wrenching for its inevitability.
Bergen is staking a whole lot of thematic ground in The Retreat.
Fortunately, his ambition is firmly grounded in an unflashy,
disciplined approach. He is sparing with period detail, limiting the
'70s references to the odd pop song or movie title, but there's never
any doubt that the story is unfolding at a time when communal
idealism was fast curdling into self-serving escapism.
Similarly, his language is shorn of tricks and self- conscious
devices. He'll use several consecutive sentences of similar simple
subject-verb-object construction, but the impression is not that of a
writer paying homage to Hemingway, but of a craftsman finding the
simplest way to express complex ideas. One U.S. reviewer of The Time
in Between described Bergen's style as "a tightly controlled
monotone," which comes across as a bit backhanded in its praise. For
"monotone" substitute "unified voice deriving great power from the
subtlest shifts in tone and emphasis," and you'd be getting there.
It's that very unity that drives the story forward: For a novel with
so many perspectives and refracting plotlines, The Retreat is a
remarkably smooth read.
The Ojibway occupation, in which the naive Raymond becomes involved,
happens largely out of the frame, as if to underline just how foreign
the Aboriginal experience is to the non-Aboriginal characters. But
its implications - the contrast between the very real grievances it
represents and the dubious aims of the commune - infuse the novel,
investing everything with several layers of dramatic irony and
helping set us up for Bergen's greatest coup, in which a character
who at first appears secondary is seen to have been the story's
secret soul all along.
The Retreat is a powerful and engrossing novel, further proof that
the late-blooming Bergen is now one of Canada's very best writers.
David Bergen appears Sunday, Oct. 26, at Books & Breakfast, 10 a.m.
at the Omni Hotel, 1050 Sherbrooke St. W. For ticket information,
Ian McGillis is a Montreal writer.
By David Bergen
McClelland & Stewart,
320 pages, $32.99