How do we become the people we become? Where do we start? What are the forces that direct and shape us? Where does it all end, and why? These are the big, meaty questions so deftly poised by Don Gillmor in Long Change. Gillmor, also the author of Canada: A People’s History, has in his third work of fiction written what could possibly be considered the great Canadian novel. It’s an epic tale that feels a little bit like a mashup between The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby, with the Canadian oil industry as a backdrop.
The story arc of Long Change is vast, as its title suggest. Gillmor explores the life of Ritt Devlin, a tale that starts with a boy of fifteen running from his past and present in Texas towards a future in the oil patch in Canada. It is a saga that will take 70 years to tell, shaped by internal forces and external circumstances. There is an awesome intersection of places, people, and events that provides resonant believability. Gillmor’s characters are principled but flawed; as readers, we get to explore exactly what principles Devlin and others are prepared to compromise, the consequences that result as principles erode and just how flawed people can become as a result.
What I most loved about the novel was the depth and richness that Gillmor has embedded into the Long Change. The book is firmly rooted in the oil industry, from the hot, back-breaking work of roughnecks at remote wellheads to the overheated, cut-throat world of deal-making and corporate competition. The evolution of Calgary and Alberta—socially, physically, and politically—from the 1950s through today, is portrayed with an uncanny eye for detail and nuance. The growth of western Canada is in many respects the story of oil; the story of oil is the narrative structure that drives Gillmor’s efforts. The landmarks and events of Calgary are brought to vivid life through the relating of how oil fortunes were made, complexly structured for tax purposes, lost and made again.
While a work of fiction, the Long Change also weaves significant actual world events into its overall structure, Devlin's thriving and striving played out against the backdrop of the wildcatting of the early years of oil development in Alberta, the National Energy Program, the decline of the Soviet Union and the opening of the far north for drilling and exploration. The detail and authority that Gillmor brings to describing life and leverage in the oil industry is nothing short of exceptional.
Long Change works on a number of levels, which is an integral part of its overall appeal. It screams of a sense of place, not just in its descriptions of Alberta but also of the wild wests of emerging oil centres like Africa in the 1980s and Russia in the 1990s. The characters are well developed and entirely realistic, wrestling in equal with petty grievances and profound ambition. It provides a gritty and realistic portrayal of the hardscrabble life on the front lines of the oil industry, the mercenary world of political lobbying and corporate dealmaking, as well as the thousands of petty personal dramas that play out on the sidelines.
Mark Mullaly is an avid reader, sometimes writer, enthusiastic motorcyclist and lover of wine (and endeavours to engage in only one of these pursuits at any given time).