#325 Valgardson’s Gothic Valhalla
First published June 20, 2018.
In Valhalla’s Shadow by W.D. Valgardson (Douglas & McIntyre, $32)
In Norse mythology, Asgard was the dwelling place of the gods, located in another dimension, possibly the sky or a different planet. It was divided into at least twelve realms; Valhalla being one. Valhalla was the home of Odin and Norse heroes slain in earthly battle.
Valhalla is also the name of a town one hour’s drive from Winnipeg, located just fifteen minutes from W.D. Valgardson’s hometown of Gimli. The protagonist in Valgardson’s novel, Tom Parsons, who has just arrived at Valhalla on the northern shores of Lake Winnipeg, just north of Gimli, is not a warrior. If confronted with crises, he mostly does nothing or behaves foolishly.
After his RCMP career, his marriage and his family have disintegrated, Parsons just wants to escape from Winnipeg. Mind-numbingly cold in winter and searingly hot in summer, Valhalla may be the perfect setting for mosquitoes and ticks but it doesn’t seem to have much to recommend it to humans. Why this place then?
Well, there’s the fishing, which could have been one of the reasons Parsons’s father came here in the long ago past. And then there’s the fact that as an RCMP officer, Parsons has been here before, when he came to investigate a mysterious disappearance. Now he’s suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and its subsequent nightmares.
“While I’m never sure about labels,” Valgardson says, “I hope it’s successful as a Gothic crime novel. I think it has something worthwhile to say about a number of issues: the RCMP, old age and identity, PTSD, our treatment of aboriginal people, the importance of the past, the need people have for a place to which they can belong; and the power, good and bad, of ambition.”
Valgardson—repeatedly cited by the late W.P. Kinsella as his foremost mentor—thrusts the reader immediately into the middle of the action. Parsons finds the body of a fifteen-year-old Indigenous girl lying near the beach near the rundown home he has just purchased.
Then comes the meticulous weaving of a ‘sense of place’, with the introduction of the wacky, wild and wary inhabitants of Valhalla where everyone knows everyone else’s business but nobody talks about their own, where everyone threatens but also offers advice.
There’s a supporting cast of drug dealers, pimps, probable murderers, chess playing intellectual recluses with killer dogs, unhappy housewives, drunks, crooks, yachters, cultists and plain old thugs.
The atmosphere is pregnant with suspicion, innuendoes, mysteries and fear but Valgardson is too good a writer to leave it so one-sided. There is also a sense of community, sharing and compassion, people making the best of their lives.
“When I taught Creative Writing,” Valgardson says, “I taught students to graph once they reached a certain point in their narrative. I used the back of wallpaper rolls for long narratives: chapters across the top, horizontals for characters, theme, point of view, setting, etc. When there are a lot of characters, plots and subplots, there is a lot to keep track of.”
A synopsis of the disparate elements in In Valhalla’s Shadow will not fit easily onto a wallpaper roll. There’s Parsons’s PTSD, the corruption and racism in the RCMP, the privileged vs. the poor, the search for lost gold, drugs, sex and two Odin groups living near the lake, one rebelling against the other. Plus, there’s all that Nordic mysticism and history of an area known as New Iceland.
In fact, the origins of the protagonist for this novel can be traced back to the days when Valgardson was in graduate school in the United States and some of the Vietnam vets were returning.
“They didn’t call it PTSD in those days but it was what they had. My grandfather called it ‘shell shock’. As well, when I taught in Missouri, I travelled a bit with a friend who was a highway patrolman and I had the privilege of seeing the world of police from their perspective. I think Tom was forming over a long period of time. It wasn’t like I sat and cogitated and said now I will make up characters like this. It was more like they wandered into the room.
“This narrative began with a man who invaded my dreams and who insisted on telling me his story. He was often not consistent, there were pieces missing, sometimes I didn’t listen well. And, of course, other characters appeared. When I wrote The Girl With The Botticelli Face, I wrote it every night from 3-5 a.m., one chapter a night. One rewrite and it was done. In Valhalla’s Shadows took six years.”
Always interested in the effects of isolation on people in remote settings and frequently confronting what he says a Jungian would call his own shadow, William Dempsey Valgardson has written 15 books. Gentle Sinners (1980) won the Books in Canada Award for Best Novel of the Year. The Girl with the Botticelli Face (1992) won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. In addition, Valgardson served as editor of the Icelandic publication Lögberg–Heimskringla for two years and has kept an apartment in Gimli for many years, returning nearly every summer. He taught Creative Writing at UVic from 1974 to 2004.
Cherie Thiessen regularly reviews fiction from Pender Island.