1891 ‘Standing in the river’
Instructions for a Flood: Reflections on Story, Geography and Connection
by Adrienne Fitzpatrick
Qualicum Beach: Caitlin Press, 2023
$24.00 / 9781773861128
Reviewed by Catherine Owen
Gentle memories. That’s the descriptor that first flowed over me at the close of reading this short, pared set of reflections on land, water, Indigeneity, history, time, people and narrative. Even though there is no tale without human characters, Adrienne Fitzpatrick’s descriptions of geography are so potent that human traits that would usually define tend to slip into rivers, transmogrify into mountains, Adrienne herself feeling the draw of almost becoming currents that are “testing and teasing…pulling like a magnet” or realizing that these places, however loved, control all destiny, full of “Small, disruptive changes” that remind humans of nature’s incessant “power.” Instructions for a Flood is beautifully designed with a startlingly explosive painting of a BC landscape on the cover, waxy stock paper, and a repeating design of cattails within, plus interspersed sketches of a toad, a heron, a fox. The contents are pinpointed on a simple map, showing the locations of all the lakes, rivers and other sites that Fitzpatrick visits over the course of a decade spent working with Indigenous peoples in a variety of reservations and other sites in the central interior and the BC northwest, spanning an artery between Prince Rupert and Prince George.
She begins with her own history along the Nechako, giving snippets of the fascinating history of Vanderhoof, formed by a “Dutch settler who wanted to build a community for retired writers” (still a fantastic idea!). The beauty of the land is scarred by recollections of losses: the boy whose Camaro flipped, drowning him, the “Three young Indigenous boys [who] died trying to escape [the residential school], freezing on the lake on New Year’s Day,” or later, the man whose brain cells have been devastated by drinking “antifreeze a few years ago” and since then, “hasn’t been the same” but this kind of sorrow doesn’t wound everything. As with the Californian poet Robinson Jeffers’ philosophy of Inhumanism, which asserts that “the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy…therefore parts of one organic whole,” Fitzpatrick writes from within the flow of the validity of all things, death and re-birth, pain, and joy. Her style took a little while to get used to as she often leaves off articles so that her sentences can seem quickly hewn, perhaps influenced by oral modalities, and sharply somatic with simile: “Blank stare of boarded windows like knocked-out teeth. Copper mine just started up” (there are indeed some clichés in this book such as this or “eyes glassy”) and the “Small wood house, sharp square windows with no paint, bare sheath like blotchy skin.” The descriptions are usually straightforward, but say everything required. The residence where beds are “two to a room, linoleum floor with beige and brown squares like a hospital.” The store with its aisle “packed with Cracker Jack. Coolers full of pop. Glass display with deep-fried chunks in metal plates.” The landscape where “skinny pine trees crowd the side of the road, sky streaked with grey, clouds sweeping in with the start of snow.” There’s a feel of the stark rhythms found in Carson McCullers or Ernest Hemingway or a haiku master such as Matsuo Bashō. The prose style must mirror the geographic conditions after all and these are unyielding in their statements of consequence, “Lines of clear-cut logging etched high up the mountainsides, signs from the bad old days when there were no obligations to plant, look after the environment” (but are there today? are tree farms signs of care? I wondered).
Rivers and other bodies of water have been a passion of mine, especially the Fraser River and environs, so I can relate to Fitzpatrick’s emphasis on paying attention to the changes of light, the rise and fall of the tides, noticing how Onion Lake “looks black, reflecting the grey sky” or at Fraser Lake the “Ice is milky but clear in spots, so you can make out fronds of weeds.” Fitzpatrick’s job is often to “interview Elders” for “traditional use study” to “learn how they used the land, stories the map lines tell.” These places where they have lived and drawn sustenance have been inhabited for thousands of years and yet most of them are isolated and so still retain their supra-human energies, “homes hidden from the highway like pale mushrooms.”
In the final essay, Fitzpatrick goes to a fish camp on the Skeena River and learns about how to “harvest” not “kill” salmon, overcoming her initial resistance to comprehend a deeper reverence of necessity. There is so much humility here, a willingness to enter difficult places and be subsumed, whether by the often-silent instructions of Indigenous cultures or by the gorgeous dominance of waters. “All these hidden places…[places] you never knew existed,” is where Fitzpatrick takes her readers in Instructions for a Flood. “Standing in the river,” Mary, a Gitxsan leader states near the close how, cleaning fish can clear “your soul…go through your own insides, the mess of you, and you’re clean when you get back to shore.”
Catherine Owen was born and raised in Vancouver by an ex-nun and a truck driver. The oldest of five children, she began writing at three and started publishing at eleven, a short story in a Catholic Schools writing contest chapbook. She did her first public poetry readings in her teens and Exile Editions published her poetry collection on Egon Schiele in 1998. Since then, she’s released fifteen collections of poetry and prose, including essays, memoirs, short fiction and children’s books. Her latest books are Riven (poems from ECW 2020) and Locations of Grief (mourning memoirs from 24 writers out from Wolsak & Wynn, 2020). She also runs Marrow Reviews on WordPress, the podcast Ms Lyric’s Poetry Outlaws, the YouTube channel The Reading Queen and the performance series, 94th Street Trobairitz. She’s been on 12 cross-Canada tours, played bass in metal bands, worked in BC Film Props and currently runs an editing business out of her 1905 house in Edmonton where she lives with four cats. Editor’s note: Catherine Owen has also reviewed books by Connie Kuhns, Hilary Peach, John Armstrong and Jason Schneider for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, 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. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster