1449 Border crossing
The Strait of Anian
by Rhonda Waterfall
Surrey: Now or Never Publishing, 2022
$19.95 / 9781989689325
Reviewed by W.H. New
When I opened The Strait of Anian, I expected to see some allusion to Earle Birney’s poetry collection of the same name, but Rhonda Waterfall’s first novel (second book) goes in a different (though not unrelated) direction. The so-called ‘strait’ is the same—a hypothetical body of open water that would join the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean (at roughly the mouth of the Columbia River: it appeared as a given on many 16th century maps)—but it serves here not just as it did in the 16th century, to allude to European expectations of reaching Asia, but also to refer to the Vietnam War, to contemporary political acts that connect and divide cultures, and to the unintended consequences of contact as well. The epigraph here is from Martin Luther King. Without hectoring, Waterfall dramatizes what ‘crossing borders’ means, some results positive, others damaging, still others ambivalent, ‘connection’ being more than an accident of history. It’s also an act of will.
This novel tells of a few months in the life of Dannie Cooper, a woman of thirty who has had a privileged home life in North Vancouver—loving adoptive parents, caring brothers, a caring but competitive sister—and a contorted, upsetting career in the ad industry. More troubling is her desire to know more about her history: she was adopted as a war orphan from Vietnam; she had a Vietnamese mother and a white father, but no other information–and then she hears online from a man in Washington State who thinks he might be her father. Will she meet with him? Dannie hesitates, she’s aware of many dangers, but then she drives south to possibly meet the man. Was he an American soldier? What is he now? Is he even being truthful? She doesn’t tell her North Vancouver family (they find where she has gone; they worry; they reach out to her in Port Angeles; they stand back and give her space). And she hesitates, which takes her into possibly self-destructive territory (too much wine, too much tequila, too many strange men, and more). The narrative, however, makes clear that ‘destructive territory’ can be domestic as well as drug-related, and brief scenes of her ad agency’s tactics (and bosses) show how abusive the conventional middle class workplace can also be for a woman. Waterfall also makes clear that while Dannie is torn—between wanting to know and wanting to stay ‘safe,’ between the family that loves her and a family that might be ‘hers’ in a different way, between a Vietnam she scarcely remembers and the race biases of two bordered North American countries—she comes to realize that she, like others, can judge and misjudge, love and care, learn and then relearn, so that she might be able to set aside what no longer matters and embrace what she knows she must continue to affirm.
The novel does not break new narrative ground: it reads in a straightforward sequence, and the reader follows Dannie’s progress compassionately. There are passages where I would wish for another edit—passages where it feels as though the author has been urged to provide ‘more detail’ and where she’s done so by adding adjectives to every concrete noun. It’s how the book unfortunately starts. But Waterfall soon leaves this strategy behind and the novel benefits, letting Dannie’s actions (and those of the other characters) reveal personalities, ambitions, emotions. Who is her father? Who is the mother she never knew? How did she come to be and why did a war bring her into being and at the same time destroy ‘normality’? What was the impact of Agent Orange, both then and now? (Lyrical glimpses of the Olympic Peninsula landscape say clearly what Agent Orange could even yet destroy.)
Several of the most vivid scenes dramatize the assumptions that underlie a New York ‘business’ meeting, some misapprehensions at an American Thanksgiving dinner, and Dannie’s emerging respect for a community she’s had to cross a border to find. There are mini-portraits here of some old men who fought, some women whose roughness disguises their strength, some young men who are tumbled between patriotism and self-indulgence and social disgust—but who can still perhaps find tenderness and the capacity to care for others, not just flee from all engagement. Love and death intertwine.
The well-meaning adoptive family in North Vancouver is least developed, their utterances flat— which may be deliberate: ‘flat’ is how Dannie hears them—they’re kind and they ‘belong’ to her but they’re ‘different’ in some inarticulate way and she has to sort this connection out. The families Dannie meets in Washington give life to the book and they give life to Dannie personally too, though their knowledge of Canada and Canadian social structures is limited at best: again, a deliberate narrative ploy, for it separates Dannie from the American war that nevertheless gave her life. This is a book about history and the dislocating challenges of reconciliation; it shows what recurrently happens in a time of violence, and yet it’s hopeful.
So at heart, The Strait of Anian is a love story. But it’s very much a book about politics as well: gender politics, social politics, family politics, the politics of history. The novel is set in 1993, at the time of the New York Trade Center bombings and the American push to go again to war. Why, Dannie wants to know, is there so much killing? (International actions in 2022 give further resonances to its horror at social violence.) Can a cross-border romance work? Can racism ever be left behind? Who has the power to act, and who has the strength to use their power to ease division and celebrate living?
William New is the author of Reading Mansfield & Metaphors of Form (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999); he has written widely on short fiction in Canada, Australasia, and elsewhere. He is also the author of a dozen collections of poetry, including The Rope-Maker’s Tale (Oolichan Books, 2009), Neighbours (Oolichan, 2017), and In the Plague Year (Rock’s Mills Press, 2021, reviewed here by Gary Geddes). Editor’s note: William New has recently reviewed books by Leah Ranada, John MacLachlan Gray, Bill Stenson, Jack Wang, Michael Kenyon, David Bergen, Darcy Bysouth, and Julie Paul for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster