The Double Hook, by Sheila Watson

double hookOne of the more interesting by-products (and there were quite a few) of reading Patrick Lane's Red Dog, Red Dog was the frequent reminder that it had been a long time since I had last read The Double Hook, by Sheila Watson. Set in British Columbia’s Cariboo country in the same near-desert as Lane’s Okanagan Valley, Watson’s tightly-written novel is one of the foundation works of Western Canadian litererature. In the Canadian literary tradition, she extends the work of Frederick Phillip Grove and Sinclair Ross; in the North American tradition, she invites comparison with Sherwood Anderson, William Maxwell and Wallace Stegner; in the current age, her influence can be seen in authors ranging from Carol Shields to Margaret Atwood to Alice Munro.

All of this from a very slim catalogue of work. In addition to The Double Hook (1959), Watson’s published works include only Four Stories (1979), Five Stories (1984) and Deep Hollow Creek, written in the 1930s but not published until 1992.

Watson taught nine grades in a one-room school in Dog Creek, British Columbia from 1934 to 1936, so this book not only involves the physical desert of interior British Columbia, it is influenced by the economic desert of the Great Depression. Equally interesting in a historical context, however, was that Watson admitted she was inspired to write the book one day in the hopeful post-war 1940s when she came upon the Anglican Church of the Redeemer at Avenue Road and Bloor Street in Toronto. For visitors to this blog who do not know Toronto, that intersection was then and remains to this day arguably the most “urban” intersection in all of Canada. I think that bit of historical information on what (or where) inspired Sheila Watson is important — one of the traits that The Double Hook shares with Red Dog, Red Dog is the presence of an optimism that challenges the overall bleakness of both books.

One final bit of background and I will finally get to the book. Watson had finished The Double Hook in 1953 but couldn’t find a publisher in either Canada or the United Kingdom (a reminder that even that recently Canada’s publishing industry was so small that novelists often had to look to the Mother Country to get published). As F.T. Flahiff notes in his essay in the New Canadian Library edition which I read the English complained “of too many characters and too much motion and dust”; the Canadians “of the absence of ‘a shattering inner force’ or ‘any profound message’.”

Too many characters? In only 125 pages, Watson tells the story of 12 characters and one spirit (the Coyote, the guiding spirit of the Shuswap Indians, “an incarnation of the paradoxes that she had already found in the landscape”). Each of these characters carries an equal weight in the book and all are developed, an amazing achievement for what in most descriptions would be called a novella. In an essay published later in her life, Watson described this extensive group as “figures in a ground, from which they could not be separated” — as good a definition of ensemble casting as I have ever seen. The epigraph to The Double Hook (which is actually a quote from late in the book) supplies the rest of the rationale for the novel:

He doesn’t know you can’t catch glory on a hook and hold on to it. That when you fish for the glory you catch the darkness too. That if you hook twice the glory you hook twice the fear.

The 12 characters of the book live side-by-side along a creek and all of the action takes place over a few days in mid-summer. There isn’t room to show how Watson develops them all, but I do want to illustrate a few. Here is William, the area postman:

William would try to explain, but he couldn’t. He only felt, but he always felt he knew. He could give half a dozen reasons for anything. When a woman on his route flagged him down with a coat and asked him to bring back a spool of thread from the town below, he’d explain that thread has a hundred uses. When it comes down to it, he’d say, there’s no telling what thread is for. I knew a woman once, he’d say, who used it to sew up her man after he was throwed on a barbed-wire fence.

Or Watson’s description of James and Greta, the adult children of “the old lady” who looms over the book as a human counterpoint to Coyote:

This is the way they’d lived. Suspended in silence. When they spoke they spoke of hammers and buckles, of water for washing, of ringbone and distemper.

The whole world’s got distemper, he wanted to shout. You and me and the old lady. The ground’s rotten with it.

They’d lived waiting. Waiting to come together at the same lake as dogs creep out of the night to the same fire. Moving their lips when they moved them at all as hunters talk smelling the deer. Edged close wiping plates and forks while the old lady sat in her corner. Moved their lips saying: She’ll live forever. And when they’d raised their eyes their mother was watching as a deer watches.

If you get the impression that Watson has no tolerance for a sentence longer than 15 words, you are correct. Depending on which tradition of literary description you hold to, this 50-year-old book is a prime example of modernist/post-modernist writing. Watson described the attitude that she brought to the book: “It had to be about what I would call something else.”

The Double Hook is not without plot. In fact there are two plot streams that Watson uses to hold the book together — since she is ambiguous in developing both, I will go no further than that here. Her characters may be “figures in a ground”, but they do relate to each other and that does create complications. Like Sherwood Anderson's characters in Winesburg, Ohio, Watson’s people are “grotesques” : “It was the truths that made the people grotesque” was Anderson’s explanation. The truths also make them very real.

I can hear a chorus of perceptive voices (this blog has only perceptive visitors) asking: “When is KFC going to explain the parrot on the cover? There doesn’t seem to be a parrot in this book.” Okay. James has gone to town (I can’t say why) and enters the beer parlor:

When they opened the door into the beer parlor Paddy (the bartender) was leaning across the bar talking to Shepherd and Bascomb. His parrot sat hunched on his shoulder.

It was the parrot who noticed James and Traff first. It raised a foot.

Drinks all round, it said, falling from Paddy’s shoulder to the counter and sidling along.

Paddy looked up.

James Potter, he said. What’s brought you to town?

The parrot swung itself below the inside edge of the counter and came up with a tin mug in one claw.

Drinks on you, it said.

Did I mention that Sheila Watson has a sense of humor? I can’t help but believe that back in the 1930s in the Cariboo country there was a parrot just like this — nobody could make it up.

I will close by returning to a comparison with Red Dog, Red Dog. If you have read that book, you can see some of the similarities; not just the locale, but the “grotesqueness” of the characters and the carefully constructed contrast between bleakness and optimism. Every bit as important as the similarities, however, are the differences. While Lane explores the ancestry of the Stark brothers to explain their circumstances, Watson deliberately and consciously avoids telling the reader anything about the background ancestry of all but one of her characters (and even with that one it is included only to explain why she is a widow). One of the beauties of reading both books (and I can say with some confidence if like one, you will like both) is to appreciate how those different approaches work.

The Double Hook is a truly amazing book — I can think of no more concisely-written, yet thoughtfully complex book in my reading history. I owe Patrick Lane thanks for sending me back to it and I cannot recommend it too enthusiastically.

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12 Responses to “The Double Hook, by Sheila Watson”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That sounds amazing Kevin, it’s definitely going on my TBR pile.

    Nice punchy prose style too.

    Getting a dozen characters, solidly explored, in a 125 page book is no small thing. The paragraph with James and Greta, very nicely done.

    Regarding covers, it hadn’t occurred to me. I’m scarred by the covers of the SF books I grew up on. Publishers in the 1980s thought spaceships sold books, especially spaceship battles. So whatever the content, the cover had a spaceship battle, however misleading. I’ve never really trusted covers since, they’re a blind spot.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I think you will find this an interesting contrast (and comparison) with some of the translated European novellas you have read recently. Both involve “frontiers” — this one geographical, those more metaphysical — and how people are influenced by them. When Watson talks about “figures in a ground”, I think that is what she means. While it is partly because of where I live, this does make the personal lifetime shortlist.

    I do get influenced by covers. (I’m still trying to figure out how much the cover of The Glass Room is involved in the fact that it is my personal favorite for the Booker this year). This cover for The Double Hook, incidentally, is from the New Canadian Library relaunch in 2008. Every other copy of the book I have seen (my first copy had a cover price of $2.25) was more on the bleak landscape side of things — I rather liked the playful approach of this one.

  3. Kerry Says:

    “I can think of no more concisely-written, yet thoughtfully complex book in my reading history.” High praise.

    As I will likely start William Maxwell sometime next week and Sherwood Anderson shortly after that, it seems that I should go ahead and put Double Hook somewhere in the queue. Based on your review, a comparison of the three should be interesting. Besides, I have read almost no Canadian fiction to date (including an abandoned Margaret Atwood), so this could remedy that shortcoming of mine.

    I like the idea of your “personal lifetime shortlist”. It is, perhaps, a less loaded phrase than “personal canon”.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Watson does fit in a continuum with Maxwell and Anderson, although the part of the continent that she writes about is quite a bit different.

    I have always had a problem with canons (probably my distaste for religion of all sorts), so the idea of a personal shortlist (which of course keeps changing) has always been attractive. I’ve never actually tried to say what it is, but might do an essay on that in the future.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m influenced by covers, particularly if I don’t like them – I’ll pay more for an edition with a better cover and will wait until a book gets reissued if I hate the cover, I just don’t trust them to be particularly accurate.

    I’ve always struggled with the concept of canon, and indeed ideas such as major or minor writers, and much else in these regards. I find Kerry’s posts on whether something is canon worthy or not very interesting, as it’s a strong statement of a view on a work’s worth, but though I find it interesting it’s not a tool I personally use. I’m fine with others doing so, but it doesn’t work for me. I tend to think in terms of does this book achieve what it aims to? Is that something that interests me? My concern with canon is always that it might put people off, make a book look forbidding, inaccessible, worthy. Most great literature is none of those things when you actually read it.

    Looking forward to the Maxwell write up Kerry. There’s some interesting synchronicity between your and Kevin’s blogs developing.

  6. Kerry Says:

    Kevin has good taste in books, Max. Neither Anderson nor Maxwell were really on my radar until Kevin blogged them. His beguiling review convinced me I needed to read Winesburg, Ohio, then I saw Anderson references everywhere, it seemed. The issue became pressing.

    Next week, I am blogging Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness (2007) and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959). You heard it here first. The week after you will be able to find Anderson and Maxwell (assuming all goes to plan).

    I think I may write up my thoughts on my “canon worthy” category and the concept of literary canons in general. If nothing else, I probably should have an explanation of what I mean for the benefit of my readers.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’m not sure I have good taste, Kerry — maybe just similar tastes to yours. I haven’t read either of your promised posts for next week, although Things Fall Apart is on the shelf in the Everyman’s Library collection that I wrote about a while back. Looking forward to your review. You are also right that when an author lke Anderson or Maxwell attracts your notice for the first time, it is amazing to discover how many other references suddenly appear. Leading you to wonder, of course, just whether or not you had been paying attention — I hope you enjoy them both as I certainly did.

  8. warbler Says:

    Thanks for this post. I just read the book for a field exam and appreciate your appreciation of it! As for the cover, my version (NCL, but from 1991) has a painting of a skinny dog, which I think draws attention to Watson’s description of the native reservation on which there are no people, only dogs who are almost afraid to defend their territory.

  9. Prof. MacDonald Says:

    Sorry to be picky, but…in the opening paragraph, I think that you have conflated Sinclair Ross and Alistair MacLeod into “Alistair Ross.” It’s true that those Scottish-Canadian names nearly demand to be glossed with one fell swoop of a name, but when discussing the Canadian canon, we need to separate them, even a little. Everything else looks great.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Prof. MacDonald: You are not picky at all. I did mean Sinclair Ross and deserve to be stuck outside my house in a blizzard for several hours for making the mistake (better that than riding out a Sou’Easter in a storm, which would be the logical alternative). Thank you for the correction — I have taken the liberty of editing the original post to eliminate the mistake. There is a professor at the University of Calgary (Victor Ramraj, if you happen to know him) whom I am sure is chortling that his ex-student (he taught me As For Me and My House) has made such an elementary error.

  11. YodeespaƱa Says:

    THANKSSS!!!

    This is of great help for my anglocanadian literature exam….it’s hard to find canadian literature information in the net U_U

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I am delighted to know that someone somewhere is teaching The Double Hook — it is an excellent novel.

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