Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Late Nights on Air

I lived in Yellowknife for many years, so reading this book was like going back for a visit. It was wonderful seeing all those familiar places in a work of fiction – Explorer Hotel, Pilot’s Monument, School Draw, Willow Flats, Snowshoe Lounge, Powder Point, Tin Can Hill. Lots of familiar names too – the Cinnamon family, Father Fumoleau, Roy Fabian, Gus Daoust and Gus Kraus, and Vic Ingraham (his poor lost feet).

Not to mention the long summer days, the community radio messages, the ravens, the dogs, the aurora borealis, the way your eyelashes freeze in winter, smoke rising from chimneys like a plumb-line...

And, since the story begins in 1975, there is the added fillip of an historically significant event, Judge Thomas Berger’s Mackenzie Pipeline Inquiry. Berger’s patient hearings resulted in something almost unprecedented -- a ruling that went in favour of aboriginal people.

As someone once said to me, “What a great setting for a novel.”


Late Nights on Air revolves around four main characters – Dido Paris, Harry Boyd, Gwen Symon, and Eleanor Dew. They all work at the CBC radio station, and have come North to leave something behind.

Dido and Eleanor are escaping unworkable marriages. Dido married a man younger than herself, only to fall in love with someone much older – her father-in-law. Eleanor had the misfortune to love a man who did not want to consummate their union. Harry returns North, disgraced after an unsuccessful jump to TV. Gwen, younger than the rest, is the only one who has not married. She arrives with a bruised throat. Yellowknife, she thinks, is “a place where anyone could make a fresh start.”

But it’s also a place that can get to you after a while, as it did to Eleanor’s former roommate, “who’d decided suddenly she couldn’t face one more day in Yellowknife.” Another says, “Winter here does terrible things to people. You’ll find out.” People depart as suddenly as they arrive. More than one character disappears in the blink of an eye.

Overlaid against all this local colour are a couple of fantastic themes. One is the story of John Hornby, whose death in the Thelon in 1927 has reached an almost mythical status. Gwen, who has read The Legend of John Hornby several times, reminds Harry of Edgar Christian, who died with Hornby. There is so much musing about that fateful event that a canoe trip to the Thelon is inevitable. Naturally we expect the worst.

The other fantastic theme is pure myth, the story of Queen Dido of Carthage. Our present-day Dido is the olive-skinned daughter of a Latin teacher, raised in Europe and come to Canada to cause confusion in the hearts of men and women, perhaps because she herself is romantically (and possibly sexually) ambivalent. While she waits in Yellowknife, hoping for the arrival of her father-in-law, she becomes involved with two men. One of them is Eddy, a technician at the station and former Viet Nam vet, who arrived in Yellowknife one day on a whim. He is, of course, the story’s Aeneas.


1. Dido is 27 when she falls in love with her father-in-law, who is 58. Gwen and Eleanor also fall in love with men who are at least 20 years older than themselves. I found this fascination with older men a little odd. Did you?

2. Compare the fate of Vergil’s Dido with Hay’s Dido. How are they similar and how are they different? What connection does the author make between Yellowknife and Carthage?

3. "…later, he would have reason to think back on young Gwen’s assessment of Eddy." Throughout the book Hay offers this and many other tantalizing hints about future developments. What is the purpose of this technique? Is it effective?

4. What is the greatest strength of the book -- plot, characters, or setting? For me, it was the latter. The portrayal of Yellowknife was excellent. I also liked learning about the workings of a radio station – the pots and carts and stings, and editing tape the old-fashioned way, with a razor, and how to create different sound effects, like using corn starch to simulate walking across snow. I liked the way the author investigated the intimacy and isolation of radio broadcasting, announcers alone in a darkened room speaking to an invisible audience. "Extroverted introverts," one character calls them.

5. Would you like to live in Yellowknife?

More Yellowknife

Late Nights on Air came out around the same time as my own novel, Yellowknife. They share some interesting similarities:

  • Both take place at pivotal periods in the history of resource extraction in the North. In Late Nights on Air it's oil, in Yellowknife it's diamonds.
  • A Japanese adventurer pops up in both books, and John Hornby, who is frequently mentioned in Late Nights on Air, makes an actual appearance in Yellowknife.
  • Both novels culminate in a trip that heads off in the same direction -- the Thelon in Hay's book, the East Arm of Great Slave Lake in mine. Both trips end in a similar fashion.

Other books of interest, in no particular order:

Yellowknife by Ray Price. An entertaining history of Yellowknife.

Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler. A visit to Yellowknife and a survivor of the lost Franklin expedition are just two elements of this many-faceted novel.

A Discovery of Strangers by Rudy Wiebe. An historical novel about Franklin's disastrous journey through the area in 1820.

Snow Man by Malcolm Waldron. A classic account account of John Hornby in the Arctic.

The Third Suspect by Staples & Owens, and Dying for Gold by Selleck & Thompson. Two differing views of the underground murders at Giant Mine in 1992.

Denison's Ice Road by Edith Iglauer. A classic account of one of the pioneers of ice-road construction.

Rogue Diamonds by Ellen Bielawski. Excellent portrayal of the Dene point of view during the diamond negotiations in the 1990s.