Review: Salmon noir.

6 05 2010

Archie held a jar up to the light and counted the lice clinging to the salmon. On one smolt he counted four parasites from two different species. “Not doing so good, are you, little friends?”

Stephen Legault’s The Darkening Archipelago (NeWest Press, 323 pages, $19.95) is an environmental noir, a salmon farming whodunit that begins with the death of a first nations fisherman on a stormy night off the north coast of Vancouver Island. Breaking his circuit between grimy Downtown Eastside boxing ring, dusty office, and well-worn stool at the bar, detective Cole Blackwater sets out to solve the murder of his friend and former client Archie Ravenwing.

Raymond Chandler, the father of the modern detective novel, gave us Phillip Marlowe, a world-weary investigator who solved murders with a quip and a eye for detail. Stephen Legault gives us Cole Blackwater, a hardboiled environmental investigator with a dark past and a fast right hook. This may sound a bit like gimmicky CanCon in the shade of green, but stay with me.

What distinguished Chandler from other pulp novelists of his time was the sleight of hand that is at the centre of great detective fiction. He wrote about sloshed heiresses and washed up bookies, but his novels were about the underlying class, race and gender conflicts in ’40s and ’50s California.  Like Chandler, Legault tells a story that is fast-paced and rich, revealing just enough to keep our eye following the ball under the cup.

Most of The Darkening Archipelago takes place on an imaginary island in the Broughton Archipelago, with an imaginary first nations band called the North Salish. There’s an imaginary company undertaking dangerous fish farming practises that threaten to annihilate the struggling wild salmon population . . . but the imaginary stuff pretty much stops there.

Legault outlines the disaster in fisheries management currently taking place in BC.  As it turns out — that disappearance last year of over 90 percent of the sockeye salmon run? Not much of a mystery. The current practise of operating open-net fish farms directly in the line of wild salmon migration routes is creating an epidemic of disease among the less parasite-resistant Pacific wild salmon, and it’s getting worse.

“I’m afraid that the sun is going down on an ecosystem that has been here since before your people, Archie,” says Cassandra Petrel,  a biologist collecting damning evidence against the fish farms in Archipelago. “The salmon is at the very centre of the whole thing. Everything else depends on it. Other fish, bears, eagles, killer whales, even the forests. Everything feeds everything else. Sometimes I feel that we’re just yelling into the wind here.”

It’s easy to feel exhausted by the facts, and Legault is at times obviously weighed down by the gravity of the crisis. The environment is in a bad state, and don’t we know it.

But what makes The Darkening Archipelago such a pleasure to read is how well-researched and detailed it is. Most novels we read are set in vaguely familiar, faraway places — Smalltown USA, New York, a century ago, the imaginary future. Legault takes great pains to set his novel here, now.

The investigation — and the novel — really takes off when Blackwater arrives in Alert Bay. Anyone who has made the trip up to the island community off Port McNeil will understand why. It’s an island divided down the middle between first nations and white. There used to be a sign facing cars as they drove off the ferry that pointed left for Indian Land, right for Stolen Indian land. The sign has long been taken down, and Legault’s story too transcends these traditional race divisions.

From the history of Alert Bay’s residential school to the menu at the Cambie in Vancouver where Blackwater stops for dinner, the pages of the book practically smell like the Pacific Ocean. (A quick note to Legault: Archie walks down Government, past the Empress, and crosses a street to get to the Legislature. That’s Belleville Street, not Superior. What a tasty discovery to spot that error!) There’s a certain thrill that comes with seeing what you know reflected in art. It’s the reason Victorians continue to watch the tedious Bird On A Wire to see Mel Gibson race his motorcycle down Fan Tan Alley. And this sense of ownership is Legault’s true sleight of hand.

Through the eyes of fisherman like Darren First Moon — a broad, friendly fisherman who is forced to take a fish farm job to support his young family — we come to understand the stakes involved in the declining salmon stocks. We follow Archie’s trips to Victoria, adjusting his string tie as he walks down Government and prepares to petition the minister for tougher regulations. We watch as Cassandra Petrel sits on the foggy deck of her boat in a wool sweater, counting the lice clinging to wild salmon fry. This salmon thing — it’s our problem, and it’s happening right now.

This Saturday is the culmination of two weeks of protests against salmon farming called The Get Out Migration. The journey began on Sointula, off Port McNeil, and is led by biologist and activist Alexandra Morton — and also inspiration for Legault’s Cassandra Petrel character. The march to the Legislature on Saturday is seen as a last stand, a final attempt to get the federal government’s attention.

The message is simple: Open-net fish farms are killing wild salmon, but there is a solution. The government needs move the mostly Norwegian-owned fish farms onto land, where they can operate profitably and without an impact on the wounded oceans. Or else we can say good-bye to delicious salmon burgers. And food security, the cultural identity of Pacific Northwest first nations people, and the entire delicate Coastal ecosystem.

It’s easy for activists to sound crazy. They’re trying so hard to convince everyone else that something isn’t right, that they end up sounding like the ones with the problem. The Darkening Archipelago gets it — people don’t want to be preached at, but we do care. Hopefully it’s not too late.

– Mayana C. Slobodian

Stephen Legault will be signing copies of The Darkening Archipelago at 7 p.m. Friday, May 7 at the Mary Winspear Centre in Sidney. The event is part of Alexandra Morton’s Get Out Migration, which culminates with a rally at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 8 at Centennial Square. salmonaresacred.org

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