#846 Ashcroft drought and hunger

The Ballad of Samuel Hewitt
by Nick Tooke

Erin, ON: Porcupine’s Quill, 2020
$19.95 / 9780889844278

Reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy

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Add Nick Tooke’s The Ballad of Samuel Hewitt to what I am calling the  BC Interior anti-Western (as in Old Hollywood Western movie) novel with roaming “heroes” emanating from the hardscrabble and hostile interior environment. Popularized by George Bowering in Caprice (1987) and Shoot! (1994), and more recently developed by Richard Wagamese in his posthumously published Starlight (2017), this fledgling subgenre of the B.C. historical novel is promising. 

Nick Tooke. Photo by Gustavo Escobedo

Not only are elements of Bowering’s postmodernism evident in this debut work; so too are influences that run the gamut of the European canon, including Homer, Jung, the Bible, German fairy talks, and perhaps above all Shakespeare, to name but a few — as well as Indigenous influences. This is a Literary Historical Novel.

In 1934 Ashcroft, Samuel’s circumstances make departure enticing. Only 17, he has witnessed the decline of his English father, who in addition to experiencing both ongoing shell shock from the Great War and the estrangement of immigration, has been incapacitated by the Depression — no longer a teacher after the local school closure. Furthermore, Samuel’s mother has left the home and taken up with Beckinsale, a local rancher. Angry, unsettled, and with few prospects, Samuel, accompanied by his loyal, wise-beyond-his-years and displaced Shuswap (Secwépemc) buddy Charleyboy, steals Beckinsale’s prize stallion.

Hand-tinted postcard of Ashcroft, circa 1940
Nick Tooke

And so begins the young men’s odyssey, the first part of which takes them through the hoodoos, rivers, and storms of the Chilcotin, to Walhachin, the Skeetchesin Reserve, and Savona to the stifling hot, racially stratified hobo jungle of Kamloops. Stage one of their journey ends, after a train trip to Kelowna.

In a concurrent thread, the reader meets up with the circus that will initiate them into manhood, in Seattle, and follows it as it crosses the border at Osoyoos before travelling up to Kelowna. Past its glory days, the circus is displaced by movies and scarred by the Depression; its ringmaster, Ballantine, like Samuel’s father, is also confronting post-war PTSD and staring down old age.

In stage two, Samuel’s rage often gets the better of him in the circus world they join. Charleyboy (who variously acts as a chorus, audience stand-in, and comic relief) initially proves more adaptable as the pair travels with the societal outcasts that populate the circus — despite, or more likely because of, being racialized.

Nick Tooke, April 2020. Photo courtesy YouTube

Things come to a head south of the border, as a consequence of Samuel’s hot temper and misguided attraction to the circus’s star performer, a trapeze artist — and the society’s shocking and violent racism. In a graphically detailed fight, Samuel, seriously injured, is sent to hospital, where he learns that he must continue his odyssey — and do penance for his sins — alone in the wilderness.

Stage three, the culmination of Samuel’s journey, begins geographically near Portland, and ends at Ashcroft — home. Heavily laden with Biblical and Shakespearian imagery, it shows our hero endure and survive many literal and metaphorical obstacles, his reckoning heightened by hallucinogenics.

As he retraces his steps nearer to home, Samuel faces his demons. First, he has a very difficult conversation with Charleyboy’s mother, accepting his role in his late friend’s violent end. Samuel next has meaningful conversations with his parents separately, in which he learns that their marriage was much more complicated than he realized, and that revenge is a meaningless concept: the denouement makes a strong case for pacifism and a more socially, racially, and economically equitable society — concepts that reverberated in this reader as she read The Ballad of Samuel Hewitt during the late spring of 2020. As Samuel is ushered into manhood and finds his place, he achieves a kind of justice. There is no such resolution for Charleyboy.

The Balancing Rock at Savona, perched on a hoodoo. Photo courtesy ClubTread.com

Tooke lightens the tone of this heavy plot in several engaging ways. For one, the banter between Samuel and Charleyboy, and among the men they encounter in the hobo jungle, for example, is rich with orality, particularly through tall tales in the tradition of Bowering, Robert Kroetsch, and others. He also takes full advantage of the carnivalesque elements of the circus to intersperse magic realism into the story.

Perhaps what engaged me most, as a long time student of literature of the BC Interior, is the landscape that Tooke re-creates. The desert aridity is more than a backdrop for the poverty and injustice the characters experience. The BC Interior comes alive with sockeye so plentiful “you can walk across their backs in the shallows” (p. 33); hoodoos and petroglyphs; and “the heady scent of wet sagebrush” (p. 19). The Ballad of Samuel Hewitt, Tooke’s debut novel, is a rich addition to British Columbian literature that is place-based.

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Ginny Ratsoy

Ginny Ratsoy is an Associate Professor of English at Thompson Rivers University, specializing in Canadian literature. Recent courses have included The Environment in Canadian Literature and Literature of the British Columbia Interior. She has published articles on theatre, playwrights, and small cities in British Columbia, and edited books, including Playing the Pacific Province: An Anthology of British Columbia Plays, 1967-2000 (Playwrights Canada Press, 2001, co-edited with James Hoffman); Theatre in British Columbia (Playwrights Canada Press, 2006); and, with W.F. Garrett-Petts and James Hoffman, Whose Culture Is It, Anyway? Community Engagement in Small Cities (New Star Books, 2014). Her latest academic publication is about a wonderful third-age learning organization, The Kamloops Adult Learners Society, in No Straight Lines: Local Leadership and the Path from Government to Government in Small Cities, edited by Terry Kading (University of Calgary Press, 2018), reviewed by Michael Lait in The Ormsby Review no. 473 (January 27, 2019).

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