Northern Writing With a Cold Streak: Godless but Loyal to Heaven

cover_image_1Richard van Camp’s Godless but Loyal to Heaven is a great read. I have no qualifications or hesitations about saying this. I have been a fan of his writing since I stumbled upon The Lesser Blessed a few years ago. I didn’t know that he had produced a new collection of short stories until I randomly searched his name in my university’s library. For some strange reason, seeing as they rarely purchase new books these days, they had Godless on the shelves.

For those of you that don’t know van Camp’s work, he is an indigenous writer from the Dogrib Nation (or Tlicho – double check this) from up in the northern territories of Canada. He is an extremely skilled storyteller who blends traditional humour with what some people have called northern Gothic. I am not totally content with this term even if it does seem the best one to capture his blend of hard-line realism and elements of magic and other bits of genre fiction. In Godless, van Camp tries his hand at zombie fiction in the opening story and I can’t say that this is the strongest of pieces. However, he really gains strength in the second half of the collection as he details the unfolding tensions and troubles experienced by Sfen and Torchy, two Dogrib brothers the Northwest Territories town of Fort Smith. These are incredibly moving stories about not just the hardships of indigenous life in the north but also about the small human triumphs possible.

I should note that there is a tangible streak of cold and caustic anger that runs throughout the stories. And there are plenty of things to be angry about if you are indigenous in the north whether it is in the long history of colonization and betrayals by white settler-invaders, rampant problems with alcohol and hard drugs, and the tangled knot of problems raised by residential schools. Sfen and Torchy are survivors of this complex and they have an ingrained habit of using violence and arson to burn their sins clean. The Lesser Blessed and The Moon of Letting Go also feature this streak of anger, although I think it is more toned down or controlled in those books. This is not to criticize van Camp for this as I felt that the Dogrib boys had every right to be angry and violent even if they, and myself, recognize the problems inherent in attempting to mete out justice by force. The title story of the collection nearly had me in tears despite some shocking revelations about Torchy’s past. And I think this is the real strength of van Camp as a story-teller: he refuses to let the anger or violence have the last word, instead choosing to push past it in some small way.

Van Camp is a very talented writer and I look forward to his next novel, Sword of Antlers (I believe this is a tentative title). His dark and unrelentingly truthful vision of northern indigenous life can be a dose of cold water but it can also kindle a blazing fire. I highly recommend Godless but Loyal to Heaven to any reader of Canadian literature.

van Camp, Richard. Godless but Loyal to Heaven. Winnipeg, MB: Enfield & Wizenty, 2012. Print.

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