The Cast Stone

saskatoon starphoenix, December 3, 2011

Harold Johnson, who both practises law in La Ronge and operates a family trapline, is back with another novel, this one an uncomfortable dystopian story about Saskatchewan in the all too easily recognizable future.

As many Canadians now fear, our country has become an adjunct of the United States. Why pay for raw materials, notably oil and water, when you can have them for free? But there are no soldiers or tanks in the streets, no bombedout buildings and cratered streets from the ferocious fight we put up to save our home and native land.

No, through rather cryptic remarks among Johnson's principal players, we gather that after a bomb went off in San Francisco and a finger of blame was pointed at Canada — likely for harbouring terrorists — the Americans were invited in by our weak federal government to help with our lax security. As an expert from the "Frazer Institute" puts it, "If the United States had not assumed the responsibility for our security, we would have been forced to impose the same or possibly more stringent measures."

So now "Fort Mac" spews so many toxins into the air most of the trees in Canada's north are denuded by sulphur and nitrogen contamination and the lakes are nearly dead. The forest line has been pushed another 320 kilometres north by development, a giant pipeline is being built to send water south from Lake Winnipeg and huge clear-cuts scar the boreal forest. None of this is too hard to imagine, even without an invasion.

Against this backdrop, in rapid rotation, Johnson presents a cast of various characters, most of them living in or shuttling back and forth between Saskatoon and a northern reserve called Moccasin Lake.

Ben Robe, a retired political science professor, has returned to his traditional home on the reserve, willing to ignore as best he can the presence of the U.S. annexation forces, with their Homeland Security spies and huge, for-profit prisons. He makes meagre catches of fish, hauls wood and water, and gets along with his neighbours. But a former student of his, a woman with whom he had a child years ago, is now caught up in the Canadian resistance. She'd like him to become part of their group and her bargaining chip is the son she never told Ben she had.

We see an illegal gathering of intellectuals and resistance types broken up by Homeland Security forces and the farmer, on whose land the gathering took place, carted off to prison to be tortured - though it's hardly called that; it's an "aggressive interview" - and a couple of the soldiers captured and detained in the Canadians' own way.

Johnson jumps from character to character, doing a good job of showing the relative nature of morality as members of different resistance cells give each other up to the enemy; a farm family in North Dakota — who look very much the same as Saskatchewan farmers — finds out their son has been taken captive by Canadians, and a Native man just released from the penitentiary decides to throw in his lot with a Native criminal organization trading in illegally made fuel. Gasoline is the new gold.

On the one hand, life in Saskatoon is shown as furtive and wrought with complications, betrayals, possible arrest and death. On the other, at Moccasin Lake, despite incursions from the south, families such as Ben Robe's are re-bonding, and traditional ways such as living off the land or dogsledding are being cleaved to or reengaged.

As the many characters sort themselves out, they must decide whether they are part of an active resistance, a passive resistance or simply passive. Robe and his new-found son argue the merits of resistance or acceptance, arguing what must be a point close to a lawyer's heart, whether there is such a thing as justice and how disputes such as the one going on in the novel can possibly be settled equitably.

While the city/reserve split, despite its qualifications, is a little too pat at times, Johnson's vision of a resource-and security-dominated future is well-conceived and mostly well-executed.

His point, that while we are looking over the hill for the enemy, all the while electing the enemy into power because we're too complacent or fear-ridden to do our own thinking, is well made. As is often the case, the enemy can just as easily be us. — Bill Robertson


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