The mining towns of northern Québec have inspired quite a few writers over the years. French Québec writers Lise Bissonnette, Jocelyne Saucier, Pierre Yergeau and Louise Desjardins have all set narratives in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region. Now an English writer has joined their ranks.
Torontonian Mary Lou Dickinson has set her debut novel Ile d’Or in Abitibi shortly after Québec’s first referendum. Dickinson grew up in the area and her rendering has an intimate feel, with plenty of French in the dialogue, and lots of convincing detail.
The plot is simple. In the politically charged climate of November of 1980, four characters in their late forties converge on Val d’Or (Ile d’Or, in the novel), the mining town where they grew up. When they were children, the town had been considerably more prosperous. It also went by another name– Bourlamaque – given to it by the Lamaque gold mining company, which founded it. The four characters — Michelle, Nick, Libby and Lucien — span the region’s cultural and linguistic spectrum. They are alike, however, in that all are reeling after marriage break-ups and other mid-life disappointments. As they meet and swap stories, romances spark and long-buried memories are dug out and exposed.
Dickinson is sensitive to the cultural and linguistic particularities of the region. The novel opens with Michelle Dufresne laying flowers at the grave of her French Catholic father. His English Protestant wife does not lie at his side, but across the road in a separate cemetery, preventing Michelle from honouring her parents together.
Another of Dickinson’s strengths is landscape. Local vegetation like mayflowers, blueberries, and the white and black spruce used by the Lamaque Mines to build Bourlamaque’s first log cabins are named and ably described. More important than the flora, though, is rock. For deep within Abitibi’s rocky substrata are “veins of precious metals found by early prospectors and later dug and blasted out by underground miners” like the fathers of two of Dickinson’s characters.
By 1980, most of the local mines had closed and most English-speakers had left the region. Dickinson expertly weaves the history of Québec’s gold rush into her narrative. The precious metal was first discovered in the area in 1923, triggering a rush of prospectors and miners that led to the 1934 founding of Bourlamaque. Dickinson evokes the sights and sounds of the mine as well as illicit practices that developed, like high-grading, a term that refers to smuggling high-grade ore out of the mine. The ore was then given to runners, who sold it to mob connections in Hamilton and Buffalo.
In the novel, we learn that Michelle Dufresne’s father hanged himself years ago after accusations of high-grading were leveled at him. We also learn that as a result of the allegations, Libby Muir broke off a youthful friendship with Michelle. As these and other stories are brought out and shared, old wounds begin to heal. And this is the real gold mined in Ile d’Or: the redemptive nature of stories told and received.
While Dickinson does a solid job of reconstructing the past in these pages, she shows less dexterity with the fictional present. Her characters don’t seem to want anything with much intensity. Moreover, almost all of the book’s dramatic events take place either before the book begins, or frustratingly off-stage. One last quibble. In a book whose central focus is Québec history, the author gets a crucial fact wrong. James Richard Cross survived his ordeal at the hands of the FLQ. Overall, though, for readers interested in an English writer’s view of Abitibi, Ile d’Or offers rich nuggets of insight.
Claire Holden Rothman is a Montreal novelist and translator.