For a nation as enormous, wild and relatively unpeopled as Canada, we write remarkably few adventure stories. Grief, nostalgia, immigration, family secrets - we've definitely got some things nailed down. But adventure? Visceral, bruising, wilderness thrills? Not much. Especially given that we've got so much potential material to work from. It's like imagining the literature of New York neglecting the city and focusing on Central Park. On a Sunday night. In a blizzard.
There are exceptions, of course. Farley Mowat spun some dandy snowbound cliffhangers. Jack London, though American, did a lot of drinking and writing in the Yukon. But in the last 20 years? The last 40? There are as many Holocaust allegories involving animals as there are tundra thrill-rides. In fact, the most successful recent northern Canadian gripper (at least of the historical variety) is likely The Tenderness of Wolves, by Stef Penney, a Scottish screenwriter who, prior to the book's publication, had never even visited Canada.
It is welcome, then, to find Keith Ross Leckie's Coppermine portaging into the world. Like Penney, Leckie is a screenwriter (CBC miniseries including Mowat's Lost in the Barrens) and, like Penney, situates his narrative in the past. However, unlike Penney's book, this one proceeds from true events (more or less).
In 1917, the first juried criminal trial of Inuit in Canada was a media sensation, the press of the time referring to the occasion as "modern law meets Stone Age man." The crime? Two priests who had headed into the Coppermine region of the Northwest Territories disappeared four years earlier, and were later discovered murdered. The accused - two Inuit hunters - were apprehended by a young NWMP officer and delivered south to Edmonton to face charges.
It is a gift of a premise: initiating mystery, physical action, epic journeys, complicated justice, clash of cultures. For the most part, Leckie exploits these ingredients in tasty ways, his scriptwriting craft showing in sure pacing and brisk scenes ending with snap! crackle! pop! buttons. His Mountie, Creed, is a solid if stock protagonist, a canoe-loving man of duty who prefers the relative certainties of solitude and the law over the puzzles of the heart.
He is Canadian in other ways, too: When he discovers that his Inuinnaqtun interpreter, a boy named Angituk McAndrew, is in fact a warm-hearted and good-cooking girl who has a thing for him, he resists the temptation for some fun under the skins with near super-human restraint. It's not that he's a married man, either. It just wouldn't be right.
The question of what is right comes into play in more interesting ways, at least anthropologically speaking, in Coppermine's second half, after Uluksuk and Sinnisiak, the two accused, are finally brought to Edmonton for trial. Leckie traces the legal tactics of a prosecution and defence challenged by a case where the confessed murderers believed they were justified in killing the priests because they represented evil spirits come to bedevil their people (an accurate assessment in hindsight). He also dramatizes the local excitement of seeing "real Eskimos" processed by white understandings of motive, of civility, of taboo - not to mention eating candy and taking elevator rides - for the first time.
But while Coppermine is an agreeable and well-assembled drama, it is ultimately televisual in both its pleasures and its superficiality. This is, in part, the fault of Leckie's prose, which while always competent, rarely casts a spell beyond the smooth relating of interesting events. But it is also the lack of depth the novel brings to any one of its points of view. Is the world of Coppermine seen through Creed's eyes? If so, we don't get to know him much beyond that of a decent Mountie whose "arc" is to develop warm (if anachronistically modern) cultural sensitivities. His eye is less important than his function, and this limits how far we can go with him, how real he feels.
What Coppermine gets right remains the more essential elements of the adventure story: suspense, stakes, clear resolution. Even the story's potential ambiguities of "good guy" and "bad guy" get swiftly tidied up, leaving us on solid ground throughout. It is a work of entertainment, in other words.
Yet it is intriguing to consider how another authorial hand might treat the same material, an approach that deepened its voices and ambiguities. Because while the greatest adventure stories take place in the outside world, they gain their power when they use their thrills to reveal something new when we look within.
Andrew Pyper is the author, most recently, of The Killing Circle. His new novel, The Guardians, is to be published in January.