One 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.