Looking North.[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
"I draw on the real world to write fiction," explains Jamie Bastedo, author of On Thin Ice (Red Deer Press), speaking from his home in Yellowknife. "All the storms in the book are based on documented storms in the Arctic; [I've seen] the hillsides torn open by melting permafrost. I heard the story of the hunter scalped by a polar bear; and the descriptions of the shaman's sea tunnels are drawn from anthropological journals."
Bastedo and former Yellowknifer Anita Daher are two authors whose recent fiction draws on their own experiences in the Arctic and subarctic regions of Canada--books that give more southern readers a greater appreciation of the country's northern expanses. During International Polar Year (2007-2008), their books--and other titles listed below--offer a magical opportunity to explore aspects of the North.
Anita Daher's Spider Song (Penguin Group Canada) is a teen thriller--the story of AJ, recently transplanted from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to the subarctic town of Yellowknife. Trying to uncover the mystery about her long-absent father, she meets a mysterious musician at the Caribou Carnival and becomes entangled in a strange and ultimately dangerous web. Daher says that "although it doesn't read like one, this book is also a love story" written after she had moved from Yellowknife to Winnipeg. "I say I've loved moving about the country, and that's true, but I don't think I was ready to leave Yellowknife. I began writing the novel a few months later, and although the plot is somewhat diabolical, the bits where I talk of Great Slave Lake, Caribou Carnival, the bookstore, the houses in old town, are all very pleasing to me. It's my way of keeping it close."
Daher adds, "Setting is extremely important to me. I draw inspiration from my surroundings, and those of my characters." This is evident not only in Spider Song, but also in her three books for junior readers in the Orca Young Readers Series. Flight from Big Tangle was set in northern Saskatchewan and its sequel, Flight from Bear Canyon, was set along the Nahanni River Valley region of the Northwest Territories. The third, Racing for Diamonds, combines sled dog races and diamond smuggling and is set along the Canol Trail in the Northwest Territories "in part because it is an area of historical significance that so many aren't aware of, and in part because it is visually stunning!"
As a "military brat" born in Summerside, PEI, and later, as an employee of Transport Canada, Daher has lived in many parts of this country: Moose Jaw, SK; Brandon, MB; Baker Lake, NU; Saskatoon, SK; Lynn Lake, MB; Thompson, MB; La Ronge, SK; Yellowknife, NT; Sault Ste. Marie, ON and currently Winnipeg, MB. Asked what appeals to her about the North, she answers, "Oh gosh ... where to begin? It may be that I lived in northern communities during my age of discovery. About the time I was just opening my eyes to the fact that the world is large, and often exciting, I was able to venture out onto giant grey rocks lining the shores of Hudson Bay. Soon after I was able to go fishing on the Arctic tundra with my best friend, Sally, a young Inuk girl who taught me a little about her culture, and a lot about 'letting go of the small stuff' ... like the many fish-hooks we lost to the bottom of the lake. I also have memories of chasing ptarmigan, having family sing-alongs under northern lights, exploring cabins decimated by polar bears, seeing where explorers like Samuel Hearne chipped their names in rock, and once settling for more than an hour on my belly waiting for a sik-sik (Arctic ground squirrel) to emerge from its hole."
She adds, "I feel very lucky to have lived in stunning parts of this country not many have an opportunity to see. My heart is still North, and that is why much of my writing is rooted there."
Daher loves travelling to the North whenever she can and, when interviewed, was looking forward to a June trip. "Canadian North has graciously agreed to fly me to Yellowknife in June, where the Junior Canadian Rangers will be hosting a launch celebration for Racing for Diamonds."
Jamie Bastedo's path from an environmental planning student in southwestern Ontario to a YA fiction writer in Yellowknife was been influenced by his advisor, John Theberge, who believed that it was important to communicate environmental discoveries to the public. Calling himself an "environmental evangelist" Bastedo has been an ecologist, outdoor educator, nature tour guide, radio broadcaster, video script writer, actor and children's entertainer and is a winner of the Michael Smith Award for Science Promotion. Like Daher, he is passionate about the North. Describing the area next to his house, he says, "Smaller than a bowling alley, it contains over 100 trees and shrubs plus uncountable species of native grasses, herbs, mosses and lichens. In winter, ptarmigan dangle from the many willows snipping off tender energy-rich buds. In spring, yellow and orange-crowned warblers flit nervously among the birches as they feed on insects or engage in courtship chases. In summer, raspberries and gooseberries swell to red and purple fullness. In fall, the high-bush cranberry and currant shrubs glow red, the birch and poplars orange. All these comings and goings, all this diversity and miraculous order in my tiny diorama of life in the subarctic deciduous forest."
Bastedo has written several nonfiction books, but in 2001, spurred on by his own daughters, he published his first novel for young readers, Tracking Triple Seven (an Our Choice Starred Selection). Using his real-life experience as a biologist at Canada's first diamond mine, he crafted the tale of 14-year-old Benji Gloss, the privileged son of a mine-owner, as he encounters the biologists at his father's diamond mine and a grizzly bear known as Triple Seven.
Bastedo's latest book, On Thin Ice, is marketed as teen fiction, but could readily cross to the adult shelves. It tells the powerful story of 16-year-old Ashley Anowiak, an Inuk girl whose family has recently moved from a large town to a village on the Arctic coast. Strange weather and reappearance of polar bears near her village are part of the odd events in her external world, but Ashley is also dealing with powerful shaman's dreams that bring her closer to the legendary Nanurluk or giant bear--and to an understanding of her great-uncle, an artist, and her great-grandmother. Bastedo not only tells Ashley's story in the first person, he also intersperses it with passages from a polar bear's point of view, told in the second person.
Polar bears, climate change, a shaman's heritage and a modern teen--the combination risks being contrived or preachy and Bastedo said he was constantly aware of that minefield, which he says is part of all his endeavours to take "science to the streets." The answer, he says, is always to "put inspiration ahead of information. This is a book about Ashley Anowiak and her adventures. That's the inspiration that keeps the pages turning." Nevertheless, the book is rich in cultural and geographic detail and comes with an endorsement from Peter Irniq, Inuit cultural activist and former Nunavut Commissioner. In addition, a companion Teacher's Guide, Polar Bears in a Climate of Change, which includes a complete novel study, is available at www.onthinice.ca.
Jamie Bastedo is working on a sequel to Ashley's story. Anita Daher is working on a novel set in Winnipeg, but has plans for two more set in the subarctic. They will continue to intrigue and educate readers in all parts of the country.