“I know some people – feminists, academics, professionals – think it is incorrect to ask a person where they are from. And maybe they are right. But I need to get a deeper sense of a person by learning about where they are from and how that place shaped their past and their identity. How can we remove ourselves from that? I guess I believe that at some spiritual level the physical land we are from is always part of who we are, even if we are separated from it.” -From Jackfish, The Vanishing Village, page 80-
Jackfish, Ontario – located on the northern tip of Lake Superior – is a real place; a place where fishing and coal represented survival until modern technology doomed the town. It is this location where Sarah Felix Burns sets her fictional story, using the barren village with its dislocated people as a backdrop to the story of Clemance-Marie Nadeau.
The novel begins in the middle of Clemance’s life, long after she has left her homeland of Canada and settled down with her husband Bernie in a rural, backwoods Colorado town. The discovery that she is pregnant catapults Clemance into a downward spiral of depression and repressed memories. The novel’s narrative structure alternates between Clemance’s present life and that of her past. She remembers growing up in Jackfish with her alcoholic father, passive mother and many siblings; she recalls her first love – an Indian man with a troubled past and even darker future; and relives her desire to leave Jackfish to follow her dreams. Clemance’s past includes domestic violence and a secret which has eroded her self-worth and the belief that she is a woman worthy of love.
Thematically, the novel centers around the idea of imprisonment. Clemance lives only blocks from a prison, her old boyfriend is jailed, and Jackfish was a site of internment for Japanese Canadians during WWII. These external symbols of the loss of freedom parallel Clemance’s self-imprisonment. She is reluctant to forgive herself, thereby setting herself free to find happiness. The idea of returning to one’s roots, of “coming home,” is also replayed in the novel. It is only through understanding where we come from that we can move forward into the future.
Burns has written a dense book – only 221 pages long – but one which is crammed with emotion. This is a novel about the scars of abuse, the search for oneself, the connection we have to our roots and the road to redemption. Dark and unrelenting, it is a novel which is hard to read. Burns takes her time developing Clemance’s character, and at times I struggled to stick with the book – not because the writing is not wonderful (it is), but because the story is so hard to hear. Eventually, however, this book became impossible to put down. I wanted to know what happened to Clemance; I ached to see her finally realize her worth in a world which challenged her faith in others and in herself; I cared about her.
Burns is a talented writer. She has written a novel of importance to women, especially women who have suffered at the hands of another or who have made choices in their lives they regret. Within the darkness of the subject matter, Burns allows a ray of hope and enlightenment.
Jackfish, The Vanishing Village is recommended for those readers who enjoy good, literary fiction and are not afraid of taking a harrowing journey with a character who could be any one of us. Rated: 4/5.