In this post I continue looking into the subject of factual accuracy in Fiction, and specifically Realistic Fiction and the sliding scale of factuality. Now, I’m taking a look at an excellent example of Realistic Fiction which is also something I had never heard of until I read it: an Anthropological Novel.
Previously: Real World Meets Realism – Is It Fact or Fiction? (Part 2 of 3)
Canadian author, Gordon Mohs, calls his work, Devil’s Run, an “Anthropological Novel”. I call it, more specifically, an Anthropological Murder Mystery. Anthropological mysteries usually mean literally that – a mystery or unexplained occurrence in the field of Anthropology – a handprint, bone, fossil or pot shard that no-one can fit into accepted theories or knowledge. The term does not generally refer to literature. Mohs holds a BA in Anthropology and an MA in Archeology, so the double entendre in the term he uses in the frontispiece of the book could not have escaped him. This Anthropological mystery novel is an excellent example of Realistic Fiction, in which the well-informed author combines facts with a tense mystery and a somber, somewhat cynical, perspective.
The facts – and the heart – of the matter
What does it depict that is so realistic? First Nations in British Columbia, Canada.
Canadians are tied up in knots about the First Nations or Indigenous People of the country. See? Even the terminology is fraught with risk – who do you offend by using the wrong term? According to Crown Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, Canada’s three distinct Indigenous Peoples are called the First Nations, Inuit and Métis (though even these groups sometimes use the term “Aboriginal”). “First Nations” is the most common term.
To newcomers to Canada, the Indigenous People situation here appears to be noticeably rife with guilt, entitlement, historical wrongdoing, and overall sensitivity. Every business with a project involving land development has to deal with the fact that if they turn over a rock, that rock will probably be on a First Nation or Band’s ancestral land and they’d need permission to move that rock. According to the 2016 Census by Statistics Canada, 977,230 people in Canada identified as being of First Nations heritage. There are 634 First Nations communities in Canada, speaking more than 50 distinct languages. But there are 38 million people Canadians in 2020, so the First Nations are a tiny 2.57% of the total population, and all the Indigenous People combined are about 4.9%, but they are definitely not invisible minorities. They stand out for their voices, their art, their history, their concerns, and their impact on what makes Canada, Canada.
Canadian Indigenous People, or the first people who settled in Canada, is a significant field of study in Anthropology. However, this Anthropological novel is from the pen of a man who is not First Nations by birth – but the next best thing. You could call him an honorary First Nations person since he has been deeply involved with them for most of his life, and three Indigenous names were gifted to him by the Tribal Nations with whom he worked; Sxwōxwíyam (legend or story-teller) El:ólìye (vison or dreamer), and Pop’qo’les (Snow Berry Bush). I know from experience that it is a compliment for an outsider to be given a name in the local tongue by a group of Indigenous People. When I worked on the South African mines, I was also known by my Zulu name Nokukhanya, meaning “Mother of Light” because of my blonde hair. My colleague, who had majored in Xhosa at university, was called Noluthando, which is Xhosa for “She is love” or “With Love”, due to her sympathetic nature. I still remember these names, years later. I really appreciated the gesture from my Black colleagues.
So, when you are dealing with Gordon Mohs, know that he is a professional and an expert in his field. His background and track record of studying with, advocating for and working with Indigenous Peoples are second to none.
How did the author gain his insider knowledge?
This novel is the result of his work as advisor, negotiator, consultant, and college instructor for the Stó:lō Nation, Sts’ailes (or Chehalis) First Nation Band, Alliance of Tribal Councils, in British Columbia, from to 26 years.
The Stó:lō Nation lands is where the novel is set; the Chehalis communities in particular. “Stalo” is also written as Stó:lō /ˈstɔːloʊ/, Sto:lo, Stó:lô, or Stó:lõ and historically, as Staulo or Stahlo. This group of people – actually consisting of eleven bands – are historically known as the Fraser River Indians or Lower Fraser Salish, and they still live in the Fraser Valley and lower Fraser Canyon of British Columbia, Canada. Stó:lō is the Halqemeylem wordStalo for “river”. I didn’t know this before I read the novel, but the Stó:lō are colloquially called the River People and their ties to rivers is a key theme in the novel. The Chehalis First Nation in particular are tied to the entire area of Harrison Lake, Harrison River, Chehalis Lake, Chehalis River, the lower Lillooet River, the northeastern portion of Stave Lake, and the Fraser River between Hooknose and Queens Island.
Reading the novel, I began to get an understanding for why the local First Nations people, including the Chehalis, get so worked up and vociferous about fishing and river rights and water rights and basically anything to do with waterways. It is fundamental to their spiritual beliefs, their identity and their way of life. Stopping them from fishing and living with these rivers is like telling someone they are banned from their country of birth. It’s like being cast out of paradise.
Where the made-up parts come in
Mohs thanks his “Xwelmexw” friends in the Acknowledgements. “Xwelmexw” means “the people” – those who are members of the Sq’ewlets Band of the Stalo/Stó:lō Nation. In this he draws on his career with the Stó:lō Nation, Sts’ailes Band. But, in the Preface, he clearly states that “…this story is a total figment of my imagination” – none of the events, dialogue and characters are real. The Tswaakum Band does not exist, nor does the Stalo Tribal Police”. The Stalo Tribal Police didn’t exist in 2000, when the book was published – now it exists as the “Tribal Police Service” for all Indigenous communities. The “Sto:lo Tribal Council” referred to in the novel was reformed in 1994 into the “Sto:lo Nation”.
The plot is his personal take on the socio-political reality of the Stalo people in the 1990s. So, the Anthropological aspects of the novel, the substrate of the novel, are accurate. It’s what lies on the substrate that is fictional. The novel is revealingly accurate in its depiction of a group of people at a particular moment in time. I wonder, if he wrote a sequel now, what he would say. I suspect that not much has changed for these people.
Murder amongst the Stalo
The hero of the story is Stalo Tribal Police Inspector, “Eddie Julian”, who stands uncomfortably with one leg in the world of Indigenous People and the Stalo Nation, and another leg in the world of the Department of Fisheries and the RCMP. Currently, the Tribal Police Service (“Stl’atl’imx”) is the only First Nations-administered police force in British Columbia, and is a designated policing unit under the Police Act. It is like an independent municipal police department, and Stl’atl’imx police are experienced officers or graduates of the Justice Institute of British Columbia. Eddie, trained at the Justice Institute, is a man with identity issues.
“Eddie’s situation now was almost the opposite of what it had been before. Being Indian and growing up in a white family in a red-neck town had been bad enough; now everyone wanted to know about gis native ancestry – not half as much as he wanted know, but it was the story of his life. And Eddie didn’t have the answers. He was embarrassed by his confusion.” (p. 89)
Eddie has a job and he knows exactly what his mandate is: half a million sock-eye salmon have gone missing and a Fisheries officer has turned up dead in the river. (And later more corpses turn up.)
Where does the title come into the story? The Stalo in the story believe in the Sturgeon People who live in the Fraser River. These ghostly manifestations of the sturgeon fish have a way of making sure what goes round, comes round. They require sacrifices. Sturgeon fish are modern day dinosaurs, relics from the past, having been around for at least 100 million years. Sturgeon can grow to over 1000 lbs and 10 ft long, living over 100 years. As the largest fresh water fish in North and South America, the sturgeon is unparalleled in its fighting abilities – and is therefore a great challenge to fishermen and highly valued by the Stalo in particular.
A particularly dangerous spot in the Fraser River is called “Devil’s Run”, which is named for the steelhead salmon, which the Stalo sometimes call “devil’s fish”, that run there in great numbers. And it’s there that the Sturgeon People deliver a surprise to “Rose”, a local woman, and her uncle, “Fred”, who are fishing:
“She gently drew the remaining fathom of line toward the boat. Her eyes darted over the dark green surface, reaching for the tip of the triangular green head. Water rippled. Rose lifted her club. Adrenaline rushed as she began the downward swing. At that moment, a pale hand broke the surface of the water. Rose screamed, then felt bone crushing, flesh being torn away. The little knife tumbled into the bottom of the boat.” (p. 26)
Death at Devil’s Run
Reading the novel created constant tension in me, personally, the reason being, on the one hand, that I could recognize and remember on every page, the buildings, roads, rivers, cliffs and valleys where the action is set. Mohs drops these place markers every so often. People who live here will instantly recognize them.
“Eddie turned to the night, and gazed out across the valley at the moonlit cone of Mount Baker on the distant skyline.” (p. 201)
In the Fraser Valley, when the weather is clear and you’re up high, you can see clearly see Mount Baker across the border in northern Washington State. In another example, Mohs writes about someone at a get-together in a smokehouse wearing a “Pendleton blanket” – we have one hanging on the wall of our house. We don’t use it – it’s art! Blankets from acclaimed Pendleton Woolen Mills, particularly the ones created to support the American Indian College Fund, and the ones co-created with glass artist Dale Chihuly, are collectable works of art. So that man was wearing a very posh, and very beautiful, blanket. These details add to the overall authenticity of the narrative.
On the other hand, though they are so familiar, I had never known why they were like that – what all those lodges and signs and names and carvings mean. While my mind dealt with the verisimilitude in the novel, and I kept wondering about the real-world politics of the situation and the Anthropological aspects, I was also carried along by the artifice of the novel. Because Mohs has indeed created here a really gripping murder mystery. In one of the final scenes, Eddie and local elder, Fred, is in a small boat on the Fraser, and Eddie has to make a jump onto the cliff-face, but the water is “primeval, powerful and deadly”. It is a real toe-curler, with the violence escalating to nail-biting levels and nature itself seeming intent on revenge.
A fine mix-up of a man
Eddie Julian is a conundrum – he has his hangups about his own Indigenous upbringing (he was adopted) and he is tall, dark and sexy, with a pony-tail – whereas his suspects are described as mostly short, dark and disgruntled.
“‘How’d you guess I wasn’t Stalo?’ Eddie asked.
‘First off, you’re too tall. You look like you’re from the Interior. But if you were Stalo, or raised around here, you’d know that it was the Sumas River, not the Vedder that flows into the Fraser at Devil’s Run.[…]
‘That’s all very interesting, but I don’t see what this has to do with Devil’s Run.’
‘To know Devil’s Run, you’ve got to know about the Sumas and the sturgeon,’ Russell replied.” (p. 58)
Eddie is the kind of man whose thoughts churn slowly for a long time, and eventually, with a kind of inevitability, he realizes what he has overlooked. He gets little help from the local community, who sees him as an outsider, but he needs help since this is his first murder case. He is a little bit like “Robinson Crusoe”, stuck in a strange place, unfamiliar with his surroundings, and reliant on his own moral compass and mental skills to succeed.
“‘Sergeant Whi…,’ Eddie began.
‘Don. Call me Don when we’re like this, or Kwel-what’s-his-name, whatever it is your boss calls me. Kwel-hart-em, Kwel-eat-um, something like that. She says it’s my name in your language. You don’t know if it means anything special, do you?’ he asked with a somewhat boyish enthusiasm.
‘No, I don’t,’ Eddie replied. ‘It’s not my language. I only speak English.’
‘Good,’ Don replied.” (p. 29)
Each character in the novel is well rounded – no one is completely bad or good. An interesting one is “Chief Robert Sam”, head of the tribe and the father of “Rose”, the woman who had the unfortunate sighting of the corpse in the river.
“‘My daughter is a sovereignist, Inspector.’ He paused to let the words sink in. ‘She and her friends are involved in what a lot of people might consider…illegal activities. And while I sympathize with her position, I cannot condone her actions.’” (p. 144)
Factuality, Realism and Completism Do a Decent Novel Make
Apart from having all the right elements of a mystery, story arc and all, Mohs has brought multilayered, evocative elements into the narrative, and making it both realistic and feasible. This author’s eyes have seen all this. He has been there and done that – this is his world. As media expert Seth Godin explains in a recent blog post, the degree of factuality and realism in writing depends pretty much on the source of the information:
“I’ve dealt with this before”: There’s a huge gulf between earned expertise and strong opinion. Knowing what others who have come before have done (and having successfully done it yourself) is demonstrably more effective than simply acting as if your opinion matters. Whether you’re dealing a lawsuit, cancer or a sous vide machine, you’re better off talking with someone who has earned their experience. There’s a reason that there are very few loud amateur locksmiths. Either the lock opens or it doesn’t. Untrained voices tend to reserve their work for endeavors in which the results are either difficult to measure or happen far in the future. May 20, 2020
That last statement; “…untrained voices tend to reserve their work for endeavors in which the results are either difficult to measure or happen far in the future”, doesn’t apply to writers of Science Fiction, which is set far in the future and is difficult or impossible to assess for factuality. However, the fact that “untrained voices” may write their own novels, does indeed not mean that they are qualified to do so or that the end result will be good.
Science Fiction, Realistic Fiction or Non-Fiction all share the same requirement: To be good, worthwhile and effective, you have to get the factual aspects sorted out. You have to do the Math, hunker down and do the research, and fact-check, fact-check, and fact-check some more.
(In the words of screenwriter Drew Goddard in The Martian, in the final scene with astronaut “Mark Watney”:
“At some point, everything is going to go south on you. Everything is going to go south and you’re going to say, ‘This is it.’ ‘This is how I end.’ Now, you can either accept that…or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem…then you solve the next one. And then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”
Sure, the factual background you may be researching may not be Mathematics, but you get the idea.)
Ask any crime writer worth their salt, whether this is true – renowned author of the John Rebus mysteries, Ian Rankin, who devotes entire drafts to just checking the details, by physically going to the places where the action in his next book will be set. David Robinson uses an interesting term to explain this attention to realism and the finest details: Completism.
“Completism means getting all the details right, right down to not changing Edderton’s name to something else. […] Yet it’s the very completeness of Rankin’s imagination that is the hidden ingredient in Rankin’s work.” [Rankin explains that] “…with me, it’s an obsessive level of detail to create an alternative universe matched to a childlike imagination – the fact is, I’m just playing with my imaginary friends and I haven’t given them up.’” (David Robinson, Ian Rankin on how to write a Rebus novel, in The Scotsman, 5 November 2012)
You can judge it, if it’s your indaba
In South Africa there is a saying, roughly the same as “it’s none of your beeswax” – “it’s not your indaba”. When judging factual accuracy, the person who is judging has to know the subject. The subject has to be their indaba, then their opinion matters because they have earned their experience.
I cannot be mad at an author when I am confused about a book because it is on a subject I know nothing about. I cannot be the judge of that. The informed readers of Devil’s Run are people like me (IMHO) who got into this subject as part of my job, and – to a far greater degree – the people who inspired the story. Gordon Mohs told me that when the book came out, he asked a few of his acquaintances in the Stalo Nation for their opinion, and the consensus was that it was entertaining and amusing, even though they recognized themselves and others in the novel. That’s the thing about Devil’s Run, it has that stamp of grubby real life about it. The ending of the book shows Mohs’s somber, somewhat cynical, perspective on the situation of First Nations in British Columbia and in Canada.
Bearing that in mind, it is gratifying that Devil’s Run doesn’t contain any of the guilt, angst or over-compensation for past injustices that typify Postcolonial Literature. There is no apology. People are what they are. What happened is what happened. These are the Anthropological facts. And the rest is Fiction.
Now please, Mr. Mohs, write another Eddie Julian adventure. It’s been too long.