Vicious bikers. The Irish mob. A family of squatters. A clever police detective. Death Count 26.
Some landscapes summon evil and once there, it lingers. Ragged Lake was a German POW camp during World War II, and then a mill town owned by O’Hearn Forest Products. Now, in its death throws, it’s transformed into something you don’t ever want to encounter, except perhaps in fiction.
Ron Corbett is a rare breed: journalist and poet. His detailed knowledge of war, of crime, of people and their nightmarish capabilities, fuses with a talent for sensory language and visceral description to lift the story off the page. Like a shotgun blast. This is a crime novel and something else—a genre called “rural noir”—a black day in the country and no picnic. Corbett writes in omniscient third-person mixing viewpoints to create a fast-paced, plot-driven, page-turner. The characters don’t change—there’s no time for that.
It begins with a triple murder. Special Forces soldier Guillaume Roy, his woman, Lucy Whiteduck, and their little girl, Cassandra, are murdered in the ramshackle cabin they built on the shore of Ragged Lake. They are squatters on O’Hearn land and keep to themselves as much as possible. Much of the backstory is revealed through the journal Lucy leaves with an old Cree woman three days before her murder: her not-so-idyllic childhood living in the Five Mile lumber camp run by O’Hearn, where her Cree father was foreman; her intimate connections with the Irish mob from Corktown; her therapy sessions; her relationship with Roy, and their escape into the wilderness. There, by the shore of Ragged Lake, for a moment, Lucy experiences peace: “Love. Work. Family. The fine high rise of that. Those were our days.”
Burley police detective, Frank Yakabuski comes to investigate the murders with two young Ident officers. Yakabuski discovers that the Popeyes are operating a giant methamphetamine lab in the defunct survival school. He figures the squatters found the lab and were executed by the bikers. Perhaps. But that, as the cliché goes, is only the tip of the exploding iceberg.
Ottawa author, Ron Corbett says: “If you’re a writer, whether fiction or non-fiction, unless you’re writing about a place that you’re familiar with and that’s important to you, I don’t know why you’re doing it.” Corbett has spent his life travelling and writing about the Ottawa Valley and Algonquin Highlands. Because he’s created a “fictionalized Northern Divide” all the time I was reading, I kept wondering where I was. Now I know. Ragged Lake lies on the southern border of Algonquin Park—one of my favourite places in the world. In 2000, Corbett camped there and wrote a newspaper feature based on his experiences. The author is most known for The Last Guide, his autobiography of Frank Kuiack, Algonquin Park’s last remaining fishing guide. In Ragged Lake, Corbett takes his experiences as a journalist and spins them into fiction.
photo from http://algonquinadventures.com
Corbett is also well acquainted with war stories, having written First Soldiers Downabout Canada’s deployment to Afghanistan. Both Detective Yakabuski and Special Ops Guillaume Roy bear the grisly scars of war and military training. Sometimes it’s hard to read. Roy’s experience in Bosnia, for example, is almost too real.
Toronto publisher, ECW, uses the acronym “Extreme Cutting-Edge Writing” and that’s what you’ll find here. Grisly, raw, evocative fiction based on experience and a sense of place…and what a place.
As reviewed in the Ottawa Review of Books, December 2018
It’s always a gift to pick up a book you’ve never heard of—one that’s not on the bestseller list or written by one of the big-name authors—and discover its beauty. That’s what I experienced with Hummingbird. This is a beautiful summer read. It will transport you to the bush and beyond.
You can read my full review on the Ottawa Review of Books.
Grace is blessed with multiple meanings in Charles de Lint’s 2009 urban fantasy novel, The Mystery of Grace. She is an idea and also a woman. This strong beautiful tattooed deva is at once kind, charming, thoughtful, and at ease around a classic car. (She grew up rebuilding hotrods with her Abuelo and works wonders at Sanchez Motors). She loves rockabilly and surf guitar. She is virtuous in her own way and both gives and receives divine assistance. She is also dead and therefore, seeking grace early in the story.
In this 2010 interview with Charles de Lint, the author says that the book is about appreciating the moment, not waiting and missing opportunities. For life is short. You never know when you will vanish from this world and reappear in another unknown place. I agree with the author, but I also found this book to be about Faith (with a capital F). And Fear. The fear of what happens after we die permeates this book and it is only through Faith that the characters can stop waiting and walk through the mist into the unknown. Grace Quintero wears her life tattooed on her body. On her shoulder is Grace’s namesake, Our Lady of Altagracia. It is her faith in love and los santos that sees her through the limbo state (about two years in human time). But how does she end up there?
This story is set in the American Southwest. Ironically, Grace goes to buy cigarettes at Luna’s and gets shot twice in the chest by a junkie. “It’s not the cough that carries you off, it’s the coffin they carry you off in,” my mother, Grace, used to quip. Grace Quintero dies and wakes up in a parallel world. Her apartment at the Alverson Arms, in the small desert town of Santo del Vado Viejo still exists, but she is imprisoned with several other lost souls within a two-three block radius. Some have been there for decades as this limbo world seems to have been created in August 1965, and everyone who dies in proximity to the Alverson Arms lands here.
After making friends with the locals, Grace learns the rules. They don’t need to eat or sleep, but they can. Some end up comatose (sleepers). Henry, who lives at the Solina Library says: “if you don’t keep yourself busy, it all goes away. First your memories, then the desire to do anything, finally whatever it is that makes you who you are” (65). Going into the misty boundaries at the edges of the Alverson world also affects memories, and going back to the real world can be traumatic. Yes. Grace can go back to her home, but only twice a year, on Samhain and Beltane. And no one will recognize her.
On her first visit home, Grace meets artist John Burns and it’s love at first sight. They spend the night together but at dawn, she disappears, leaving John lonely and confused. Their relationship is only a flutter of what this book is about, so I won’t call it paranormal romance (though John is human and Grace a ghost.) This book, like all de Lint’s books, runs deep, crosses genres, and defies labels.
Norm, a distant cousin of shaman Ramon Morago, is the only one who can see Grace when she returns twice a year and he keeps telling her to “find her path.” Norm is Kikimi, and a kind of funky spiritual advisor to the lost girl caught in limbo. Morago and the Kikimi people are the subject of de Lint’s latest novel, The Wind in his Heart—my review here). Norm sees dead people and must use prayers and sacred smudge (sage) to keep the spirits at bay. Once they know you can see them, they keep harassing you. They’re lonely and want to talk. A shaman can choose but Norm doesn’t have a filter. He must pretend not to see them; otherwise, they drive him to drink.
What happens when we die? Will we be reunited with our ancestors? With those we love? Do heaven and hell exist? Or do we go into a kind of limbo to await our next incarnation? The Mystery of Grace inspires us to question our belief in God and the afterlife.
As always, de Lint, weaves a sensual tapestry of landscape, music, love, and culture. I am dazzled by his creativity, his brilliance, and his daring. Into this story, de Lint pours the tale of Juan—Juan can capture a bruja (witch) and turn her magic back on her “because the priest Juan Diego was the first to see Our Lady of Guadalupe” (197). Why does Grace needs to know about Juan? That is a question best left unanswered.
I leave you with a quote by Alice Hoffman.
Charles de Lint is the modern master of urban fantasy. Folktale, myth, fairy tale, dreams, urban legend—all of it adds up to pure magic in de Lint’s vivid, original world.
Four years ago, I was working as a relief lighthouse keeper for the Canadian Coast Guard. I’d taken a year off teaching to explore and destress and try something new.
Between March 27 and May 23, I stayed at Nootka and recorded my adventures, and misadventures, in a journal and a blog. This was my house for eight weeks.
I’ve been thinking about that time a lot lately. This summer, I am planning to take the Uchuck III day cruise from Gold River to Friendly Cove, so I can walk those beaches and trails once again. I had hoped to visit with Mark, the lighthouse keeper I worked with at that time, but apparently Mark and Joanne retired last September. So, all I can say is “Congratulations!” from afar.
People often ask me what I did there. This video and article written and recorded last August with Mark and Joanne brings it all back to me. It is a beautiful landscape, rife with history—some of which is tragic—and I feel blessed that I was able to spend some quality time there.
This is my post from April 22, 2014.
And this is the pebble beach—one of my favourite places in the world. I can’t wait to walk here again this summer.