Early in Colette Maitland’s new novel Riel Street readers are invited into Kingston Ontario circa 1967: “Riel Street has begun to resemble a dump along with most of the other streets close by. People are on the move hauling their excess belongings out to the curb to be disposed of free of charge by the military. Broken down baby buggies rusted out barbecues pee-stained single mattresses wooden bed frames lampshades old toys. It is a garbage picker’s paradise.”
Sounds depressing; sounds small-town Canada. It’s also where the Bouchard family makes their home and when we meet them in 1967 it’s the first place they’ve been able to truly call home in a long time. The family patriarch Gil serves as a corporal with the army leaving his wife Shirley at home with four young children. The novel studies them through a few key years in Canadian history 1967 to 1970 from observant bicentennial celebrations to the death of Pierre Laporte at the hands of the FLQ. It’s the era of Baby Boomer TV shows (Dick Van Dyke Jack Benny) and disgusting Technicolor meals comprised of Cheeze Whiz and Jell-O salads.
Though the novel takes a floating omniscient approach to narrative one voice dominates most of the story: Gil and Shirley’s daughter Claire. She’s a dreamer doubly difficult when navigating the pressures of school and Catholic guilt. Beware the ever-present threat of strangers the rapist lurking on the other side of the playground fence; be sure to keep your legs closed unless you want to end up like that knocked-up 14-year-old down the alley.
They’re a tight-knit family part of an even tighter-knit community though no stranger to hardships. There’s divorce teen pregnancy and drunken brawls. Even grandma has diabetes. Despite the soapy nature of some plot details Riel Street isn’t Peyton Place — sure there’s the silent suffering of the ’60s housewife all patent leather shoes and dirty dishes but Maitland isn’t interested in writing some deliciously depressing domestic drama. It isn’t really the adults’ tale and the best passages in the novel find the kids trying to situate themselves against other cities countries the United States. It’s a particularly Canadian preoccupation (and problem) this identity crisis. Maitland leaves it ambiguous until the final passages of the novel where things take a more didactic confrontational turn pitting English versus French. It feels out of sync with the rest of the book putting too fine a point on the otherwise naturalistic Canadiana.
Riel Street moves at a quick clip speedily navigating through the years with graceful dialogue. Maitland skillfully and delightfully captures the cadences of kid talk full of ridiculous boasts and cutting put-downs. The passages of colloquial speech approximating Quebecois English and a toddler’s baby-speak (“Cwaire” for Claire) are honest and approximate but still look funny on the page.
It’s difficult to write historically situated novels weighted with the unbending facts of past events and lives. When a character says of Robert Kennedy’s assassination “I hope they don’t elect Nixon!” it lands with a thud. We all know what happened and how we’re supposed to feel about it. Maitland largely avoids this narrative fossilization by carefully situating her novel in prime Boomer territory with just enough detail just enough drama to craft a modern take on a hardscrabble Canadian family. For some it’ll read like ancient history; for others it’ll be a trip down memory lane.
Riel Street by Colette Maitland Frontenac House 199 pp.