Nonfiction Review by John Barton

Helen Humphreys, The River (Toronto: ECW, 2015). Hardbound, 209 pp., $24.95.

The RiverIn the introduction to her memoir about the Napanee River, a thirty-five-mile-long stream emptying into Lake Ontario west of Kingston, along which she bought a cottage ten years ago, Helen Humphreys asks “How can we know anyone or anything?” In her third book of nonfiction, she aims to establish the extent to which one can, without imposing on her river of choice what she identifies as her “own struggles and desires” since, in her case, she is not “as interesting as the river.” In the chapters that follow, she lays out, often in the most poetic of terms, the fruits of her decade of attentiveness.

In The River, with its lists of flora, fauna, and salvaged human debris and with its archival and contemporary photographs, maps, and illustrations, Humphreys meditates on her relationship with the Napanee. In an early section, “Anthropocene” (a contentious term for today’s geologic age, arguably beginning two centuries ago when our species’ impact on the Earth became “significant”), she documents humanity’s engagement with her river, from the traces of the First Nations through the heyday of logging to her habitation of a much-altered landscape. She reflects that “through the early and mid-twentieth century, Nature was a proper noun, with a capital N.” After such ravages one might be amazed that there is anything natural left to chronicle, but Humphreys nevertheless makes note of the wildness still teaming about her in “Morphology.” She takes a spiritual turn in “Plain Song”—“There is comfort in thinking that the river is old, and that it will continue after I am dead”—and dwells on permanence and temporality. In “Leaf Flight,” she immerses herself in the contentment that observing and experiencing the river brings to the fact of her existence: “…the water must have a high mineral count, because aside from making jewellery gleam, it makes you feel better…. And I wonder if this sense of well-being that occurs when you swim in the river, or just sit under the pulse of the waterfall, contributed to it being known by the Chippewa and Algonquin people as a sacred river.” These four chapters are bracketed by “Beginnings” and “Endings,” respectively a proem and envoi in which Humphreys compiled her attempts to start and endThe River, with each failed effort initially written “with hope and confidence that it was the right direction to take.” Assembling these fragments into composite points of entry and departure seems in step with her decision to retain and treasure the china shards she brought up from the riverbed.

What makes this book stand apart from similar portraits of humanity in nature—think Stegner’s Wolf Willow or even Thoreau’s Walden—is a product of what in the introduction she calls her novelist’s toolkit. Each of the four chapters concludes with two or three brief fictions that pick up on some detail in the nonfiction that precedes them. The title Humphreys assigns each story is a species of plant or animal she has observed. Cumulatively, from chapter to chapter, these stories loosely meander from the settler era to the quasi-present, with the last three named after invasive or artificially propagated species. In “Cattail,” the first of the stories, the unnamed female protagonist has come to the river with her new husband to homestead and is determined to utilize every bit of the cattails around her as flour for bread, salve for burns, stuffing for mattresses, a potato substitute for stew, and torches to guide her husband home. She has traded civilization’s basics for the tapping of this innate resourcefulness because she wants to live a life that gives her the “feeling of being used up utterly, of there being nothing left over at the end of a day, at the end of her life.” Take that, Margaret Atwood. She is hardly Susannah Moodie roughing it and going crazy in the bush.

These fictions, when considered alongside the book’s documentary threads, provide insight into how Humphreys works as a novelist, showing how she takes the countless details she’s accumulated through research and observation, including an awareness of her own imaginative engagement with what she’s amassed, and transforms them into the “historical fictions” for which she is justly praised, constructing compelling characters, settings, and narratives. They also unabashedly move The River onto the creative side of the nonfiction genre without indulging in the mawkish accuracy of period-costume reenactments on the History Channel or in the chiselled-chin woodenness of Mark Trail.

To gain the fullest appreciation of Humphreys’ method, read The River after The Evening Chorus, a novel she published in the spring of 2015, and better understand the genesis and genius of both. In the novel a British pilot in a Nazi prison camp observes redstarts nesting outside the wire while his sister catalogues flora in rural England, where she has been evacuated after being bombed out. What animates aspects of these books appears so alike I can almost see their author working on them simultaneously at separate desks. Certainly, they are obverse sides of the same inspirational coin. A writer of thorough knowing and no wasted words, Humphreys need not expend energy writing a volume on craft. These books together say more about nonfiction’s role in fiction and fiction’s in creative nonfiction than any how-to manual could. And what links them most subtly are redstarts: they flit through the pages of both.

—John Barton

As in The Malahat Review, 193, Winter 2015, 141-142