Rupert’s Land by Meredith Quartermain
November 13, 2013 § 2 Comments
My first job in Canada was a very lowly position that gave me access to a large number of case files relating to class action suits brought by former residential school students. It was quite the introduction to a side of Canada I knew very little about. The oddest part was that my job—in other words I—was considered so very lowly that nobody ever talked to me about the contents of the files or asked me to do anything more taxing than photocopying.
I relived some of that experience of becoming familiar with these horrific files as I read Meredith Quartermain’s new novel, Rupert’s Land, the story of two children whose freedom is limited by political and social contexts far beyond their control. Cora lives with her family in Depression-era Alberta, and Hunter lives on a reserve with his extended family until the Indian agent finally forces him and his sister Rose-Berry to go to school. The school sections are heartbreaking, with the portrayal of the physical, psychological and sexual abuse of the children adroitly managed by Quartermain.
Cora struggles against expectations, against gender limitations and societal norms. She’s intelligent, interested in science and profoundly bored by her friends’ fascination with boys. Cora’s position, so forcefully stated, tends to undermine Cora herself. Her romantic notions of how living with the Indians might make her life easier—or at least closer to what she wants it to be—are both poignant and annoying, as I think they are supposed to be. Cora is, after all, still a product of her time.
Where Cora is the mouthpiece for the social and socio-economic issues of her (and indeed our) era, Hunter is a fully living, breathing character, the subtle novel to Cora’s belligerent op ed. We first meet him quite far through the novel as he’s feeling pressure, yet again, to go to the residential school that his cousins have to attend. Although he’s fifteen, he’s escaped so far and has been able to stay with his loving, close-knit family (enjoying the kind of emotional stability Cora doesn’t even know exists) but now the rules are being tightened. He and Rose-Berry must go. Once institutionalised, he mentally escapes and survives by living as much as possible in his imagination and his grandmother’s tales.
Cora and Hunter meet rather late in the novel, after Hunter has escaped from the school without his sister. He needs to get home to his family, and Cora decides she is the one to help. They set off together on a journey doomed to disaster in a section that alternates between strong and less successful. Here Quartermain deals well with the balance of power, as Hunter often has to submit to Cora’s well-intentioned but clumsy help, in a direct but skilful echo of the colonial project writ large. The ending is disappointing in moral and storytelling terms, with Hunter submitting almost willingly to his forced return to school, believing that it is only a question of another year or so before he can enjoy his freedom. But perhaps this terrible irony is the only fitting ending, since we all know that “freedom” was not in sight for Hunter, or for any of his fellow residential school victims, for decades to come.