Sunday, May 18, 2014


When I was growing up in communist Poland one of my favourite games was “Cowboys and Indians”, played with my brother and our friends, or with plastic figures. When I was older, my fascination was fueled by reading adventure books such as The Wood Hunters and The Gold Hunters by James Oliver Curwood. I wanted to be an aboriginal warrior and have adventures in the wilds of America. You can imagine my disappointment when I immigrated to Canada when I was 15 years old and realized that my entire view of Canada’s indigenous people was completely wrong, and how complicated is their history and present situation in our country.

A debut novel by Krista Foss, a writer and teacher living in Hamilton, Smoke River, deals with the effects of a land dispute over an area of a new residential subdivision between the Mohawks and the non-native Canadians living in Doreville and financially involved in the development site. The book was probably inspired by the Grand River land dispute in Caledonia near Hamilton.

The novel is complex, as it tackles a complex issue. This epic story centers around several families whose interests lie on different sides of the protesting natives’ blockade. As the protest continues, and a young native girl is found brutally raped, no one is left untouched: the mayor of Doreville and her family, a family financially dependent on the new development, the strong female leaders of the protesters, lovers from different cultures, the tobacco farmers and cigarette manufacturers, parents and children. Jealousy, greed, violence, ambition, but also hidden dreams, memories, and longings surface as the characters make the decisions on how to live after the blockade is dismantled, and after the crime is handled by the police and lawyers.  Some of the questions Krista wants us to think about are: What would we do for our children and our homes - o’tá:ra, which in the language of the Mohawk people, means both clay and clan – land and family? Would we protect them from the law? Would we fight the law for them? Would we choose justice over blood ties? What does justice mean? What about fairness?

Krista Foss is especially adept at depicting the lush landscape of the region, the tobacco fields, the river, and the moments of conflict, where the action is as swift and dangerous as the current of Smoke River. Krista Foss's raw and poetic, intense style reminded me of Annie Proulx. Her descriptions of tobacco farming, like a cigarette-scented madeleine cakes, led me to the memory of a small village in Poland, and my cousins, their hands stained, picking tobacco leaves and stringing them on wires to be hung in curing barns.

The novel is written from many different points of view, which at first makes it difficult to follow the plot and figure out who is who, however, at the same time it allows for a very objective presentation of the events.  There is history, personal history, livelihood, and tradition behind both sides of the conflict.

Kasia Jaronczyk was born in Poland and immigrated to Canada in 1992, at 15 years old. She has a Master's in Microbiology.  She lives in Guelph with her husband and two children. She has published poetry and short stories in Room, The Prairie Journal, Carousel Magazine, the Nashwaak Review and Postscripts to Darkness anthology.

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