Monday, October 4, 2010

The Tent Peg by Aritha van Herk

Mackenzie did not intend to hire a woman cook for his all-male crew of geologists. They would be spending three months in tents in the Canadian north, sampling rocks, searching for anything of value (uranium; gold). Mackenzie is getting too old to be going out into the field every year, but this is how he runs from his personal demons.

J.L. is also running from her past. She was hired on the basis of her resume and a letter of recommendation - one that didn't happen to mention her gender - and with her androgynous looks, Mackenzie did not even realize she was a woman when he met her. J.L. decided to clear up his misconception when they were getting supplies together in Yellowknife before the other eight members of the crew arrived.

Everyone gets a turn in narrating the story of a summer spent in the wild beauty of the Yukon mountains. The isolation in the wilderness takes its toll, but J.L. is the peg that keeps their sanity tethered. She plays a grounding, healing role - quite unlike the Biblical Ja-el for whom she was named.

I'm glad that someone in my book club suggested Tent Peg. I had read it nearly 30 years ago when it was first published and only remembered a) that I liked it and b) that it was about a bisexual female camp cook amid a group of men. Rereading brought back memories of myself at 20 years of age as well as the mystical earth-mother sensibilities of the late '70s and early '80s. It may have been the first novel in which I encountered multiple points of view.

Nostalgia aside, this book stands up well as a contemporary tale. The vast northern Canadian landscape has changed very little and continues to be a good metaphor for self-exploration. Attitudes towards women in male-dominated fields have (unfortunately) also changed very little.

The Edmonton Public Library only has one copy of the book, and it is kept in the Alberta Literature reference collection (because van Herk was living in Edmonton around the time the book was published in 1981). Luckily for readers, Tent Peg has been reissued by Red Deer Press. My only complaint is about the weird typos in the edition I purchased. These appeared to be errors from OCR translation of copy into digital format, because why else would "you'll" appear as "you 'I!" and "tell" as "tel1"? Other people in our book group read the same edition and did not even notice these, so I guess it is pretty minor.

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