- Why Should We Read and Study Wilson?
- Literature & Analysis
- from Before the Flood
- Analysis of Before the Flood
- “Equipment Failure”
- “The Moon”
- Analysis of Wilson’s Poetry
- Questions and Considerations for Reflection
- Strategies for Teachers
- Further Reading
Alan Wilson was born in Moncton, spent his formative years in Saint John and Woodstock, attended university in Fredericton (UNB), and now works in Victoria, BC. That peripatetic life is reflected in his creative work, which began with the poetry collections Animate Objects (1995) and Counting to 100 (1996). Those collections, though quite different, reflect the scientist’s interest in the hidden orders of the universe, whether laws of matter or number. Counting to 100, for example, is a meditation on each of the first one hundred numbers in our Hindu-Arabic numeral system, while Sky Atlas (2008) employs the sonnet form to map an overhead atlas of night constellations. Wilson carried his interest in natural law and hidden orders to his first novel, Before the Flood (1999), which works on multiple levels to examine the nature of place, the movement of time, and the relationship between physical and narrative landscape. The novel is of special interest to development activists because it examines the politics (both personal and governmental) of altering the watercourse of the St. John River to build the Mactaquac Dam, a 1960s hydroelectric mega project that supported New Brunswick’s industrial ambitions. Common to Wilson’s poetry and fiction is a fascination with the elemental forces that break down man-made things. His interest is to locate the calculus that animates change and that devours our built environments.
For a much more detailed biography of Wilson, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
Why Should We Read and Study Wilson?
- Wilson is much like Elizabeth Brewster in his distance from New Brunswick. His home province, like hers, is considered from afar, specifically from Western Canada, and though it is often the subject of his work (most powerfully in fiction) it is the place held in memory rather than the place of daily living. That does not diminish or compromise the sense of place, but certainly makes that sense of place familiar. He writes, in other words, from the position of an economic migrant, having had to leave the province as others have done for decades. His work, like Brewster’s a generation ago, illustrates that a writer need not live in a place to write knowingly and passionately about it. What makes Wilson’s work so relevant for those who have had to leave is its exploration of history as a process of return. For him, the past is never gone but is remade in the present, a view that unites time and space in ways that will interest those who have left New Brunswick physically but who maintain emotional ties to their home province.
- Wilson’s novel, Before the Flood (1999), is relevant to many discussions ongoing today in New Brunswick about mega projects, whether around resource extraction (mining and hydraulic fracturing) or industrial development (pipeline construction, shipbuilding, oil refining, and energy generation). Central to current policy discussions in the province is the refurbishment of the forty-year-old Mactaquac Dam, the same dam that is the focus of Before the Flood. Not surprisingly, the questions that arose in 2016 around that issue are the same questions Wilson’s novel examines: what are the effects of such development on human and animal populations; what are the consequences of giving politicians the right to make decisions of this scale for citizens; are those politicians acting in the best interests of citizens or are they agents of corporations or for “liberal” ideas of progress? Wilson’s novel addresses the effects of these projects on people, communities, environments, and history. It places the St. John River at the centre of what it means to be a New Brunswicker.
Literature & Analysis
from Before the Flood
The green Continental, with whitewalls and Maine licence plate, looked like some dinosaur from the age of chrome. It coasted to a stop beside the Nighthawk Cafe. The tailpipe and hood ornament shone in the sun. A nude figurine swung from the rear-view mirror.
The four of us paused at the curb to examine the car. “How’d you like to burn around town in a jalopy like that, Sam?” Vergil asked.
Norm looked offended. “Jalopy? With an eight-cylinder 290 under the hood?” He paused, scratched an auto grease patch on his neck. “That’s no jalopy. That’s a car!”
I imagined myself bombing toward the bright lights of Houlton, with one arm flung around Carolyn Shaw. Houlton, twelve miles west across the American border, had nearly nine thousand people. Twice the size of Woodstock, it boasted the Ricker Technical College, an eighteen-hole miniature golf course, a permanent amusement park, and beer in the grocery stores. It seemed a very exciting place. “Around town?” I removed my glasses and polished them urbanely on my sleeve. “When I get my licence I’ll burn out of this one-horse –”
“At least until supper,” Garret said.
The driver, wearing a Ricker Technical College jacket with a huge crest that said “Electronics,” revved the engine as he leaned out the window. “Any you assholes speak American?” Earrings on the girl beside him sparkled as she laughed.
Garret peered over his sunglasses and brushed away a dark curl. His green eyes flashed in the sunlight. The girl in the car noticed him and smiled.
Vergil shrugged. “No speaka Merican.”
The driver swatted at something on his side-view mirror. A mermaid tattoo on his forearm shook a purple bosom. “Which way to Island Park?”
Garret pointed in the direction the Continental had come. I pointed west, out of town. Vergil pointed ahead at the River Bridge, which linked Woodstock to the fields and hills on the far side of the Saint John. “Go halfway across and turn right.”
The driver threw open his door. “I don’t take crap like that off no jerk high school kid.”
Vergil started to dance on his toes and jab the air like a prizefighter. His slippery grin was wider than ever. “Come on, you Merican! I’ll take you on!”
The driver behind, in a beat-up Dodge with no muffler, gunned his engine and honked. “Assholes!” the American shouted. He slammed the door and roared off in the direction I’d pointed.
“What a car,” Norm whispered.
“Hey!” Vergil shouted at the receding Continental. “Great pair of headlights!”
“What a car,” Norm whispered again.
Garret rolled his eyes. “Brain hit a scratch, Norm?”
“A scratch?” Norm asked, coming out of his reverie. With a wrinkled brow he stared after the car, as if looking for flaws in the paint.
Vergil swaggered in between Garret and me as we reached the bridge, and dropped his arms across our shoulders. “I sure taught that Yank a lesson about messing with a guy from Woodstock High.”
Vergil was lean, with sun-streaked hair, hooded, keen eyes, and a natural immunity to fear. When he walked, his long arms dangled as if there wasn’t enough tension in his body to keep them steady. His usual outfit was a pair of deer-hide moccasins, cords, sometimes a shirt, and a worn canvas coat with fishing lures in the lapels.
“What’s that stink?” I asked.
Garret arched an eyebrow and sniffed the air like an affronted connoisseur. “It smells like rotting fish.”
Vergil sniffed too, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a trout.
“Christ!” Garret shouted.
Vergil, almost thoughtful, examined his fish. “Caught him last week. Forgot all about it.” Vergil fished whenever he could, both in and out of season. He knew the local waters of the Saint John and Meduxnekeag Rivers better than he knew his own room. In winter he cast through holes he chopped in the ice.
“How could you forget a fish in your pocket?” Norm asked, more as a protest than a question.
Norm, whose real name was Norville, after some great-great-uncle or something, was very concerned about things being as they should be. He had big, blotchy freckles and red hair wound tightly as springs. He considered his real name and freckles and hair abnormalities, and tried to compensate by dressing and acting the way he figured all fifteen-year-olds should dress and act. A frown was his standard expression, and he always seemed under pressure. Only the excitement of cars could make him forget himself. He’d built up collections of parts from models I’d never heard of, and had the steering wheel from a 1926 Franklin mounted like antlers over his bed.
Vergil tossed last week’s catch over the rail. It reeled a slow arc, head over tail, then splashed.
I watched it bob on the waves. “It’s not swimming, Vergil. Maybe it’s dead.”
“Nah. They can hold their breath for days.”
Garret held his nose and pushed Vergil away. “I wish I could.”
An invisible current snatched the dead fish. It spun a full turn, slipped through the shadow of a pier, then started upstream.
Halfway over the bridge we turned right, onto the ramp to Island Park. In 1910 the island had been donated to the town on condition it be used as a park and never sold. It had a campground, arena, racetrack, and heated outdoor swimming pool ten feet deep at one end. The edges of the island were still dotted with huge, ancient willows that grew out over the water. The tourist brochure called Woodstock unique because a river surrounded its municipal park. Every August during Old Home Week, a carnival came to town and used the island’s long field as a fairground which featured gambling concessions, rides that made you sick, and a peep show that promised “you’ll never be the same again.”
We cut across the field toward the pool. The summer weather had continued into the start of another school year. Only an occasional gash of red in the greenery hinted that things would soon be changing.
“Finished your essay on the dam yet?” Norm asked Garret.
“All except for all of it.”
“Mine’s almost done,” I announced. “Just need to think of –”
“– a way to shut up,” Garret snapped. The effortless way I dealt with my homework had always irritated him.
“But it’s due Monday,” Norm said unhappily. “We’ll have to stay awake –”
Garret slapped some milkweed. A group of monarch butterflies spiralled out of the leaves. “Can’t we find something less depressing to discuss? Like fire or flood or disease?”
Vergil pointed to a girl diving off the high board. Her tanned, curvaceous body split the water. Milk chocolate legs disappeared in the spray. “Will you look at the jugs on that Somers!”
Norm looked worried. He had to work very hard for his moderate grades. “How can McCaffery expect eight pages on a dam that hasn’t been built?”
“Mine’s almost done,” I reminded them. “Just need to think of a title.”
“How about ‘Who Gives a Dam,’” Garret said.
Mrs. McCaffery, our history teacher, considered herself a progressive. Though over forty, she wore her hair loose. She preferred high heels, long earrings, short skirts that showed off her knees, and sometimes even came to school in slacks. After she’d divorced her husband, whose favourite pastimes were drinking Moosehead ale and playing pool at Oldtown Billiards, she built a bungalow with an intercom and took up with the young manager of the Whoa! Daddy Restaurant. She liked to say that dates were diary entries in the progress of mankind. Every class she’d give us more to memorize. Thursday’s batch had been on watersheds in the development of electricity. She said that electricity had done more than any other invention to free us from drudgery. She’d listed the watersheds on the blackboard, with the invention of the light bulb, the generator, and television underlined. Then she’d assigned a snap essay for Monday, worth 25 percent of the Christmas grade, on how important the huge Mactaquac hydroelectric dam, which was being started downriver this fall, would be in turning the province into a modern technological society. Vergil had asked if anything had yet been invented that would free us from the drudgery of learning about other inventions, and he’d had to write “I shall not show disrespect for those who seek to better the world” six hundred times – a new grade ten record.
We changed into our bathing trunks. I wrapped my glasses in my handkerchief, wedged the package into my sneaker, and followed Norm and Vergil into the pool. Garret stretched out on a lounge chair and adjusted his sunglasses. He never swam. He said he didn’t like diving into water that tasted like mouthwash, but I’d heard his grandmother say he’d almost drowned as a baby and for months after had cried whenever he got a bath. Vergil spotted Rachel Somers and knifed underwater toward her. Norm, still looking worried, started to swim in wide, careful circles. A peculiar amalgam of breaststroke and dog paddle allowed him to hold up his head so his hair wouldn’t get wet and curl even tighter.
I swam on my back toward the deep end and began to think about possible titles for my essay. With my glasses off, the sky was a blue and white jumble. A bloated sun slipped through the clouds. A cawing flock of black splotches passed overhead. Whenever I wanted to think, I removed my glasses. It gave me a certain privacy, a freedom from the distraction of objects in focus. And since I never swam with them on, the pool had, over time, become my personal think tank. I wouldn’t climb out today, I decided, until I found a title deserving enough for what was sure to be an A+ essay. “One,” I said when I’d done my first lap. My high was fifty-one, nearly half a mile.
During lap eleven, someone who probably wore glasses too flayed in my direction. I executed a flurry of powerful strokes to avoid a collision. “Mighty Mactaquac,” I gasped. Bold and alliterative. A powerful title. But then it reminded me of my youngest brother’s favourite Saturday morning cartoon character: a young Indian who after school would don war paint and feathers and ride his scooter around parked cars. Too frivolous an image for such an important topic.
During lap nineteen I felt a warm current. Urine, I realized. “Save it for the bowl!” I snapped at the fuzzy back of some kid’s head. While distancing myself with a quick run of backstrokes, “Damming the Mighty River” came to me. But the river was low this time of year – not mighty at all. So I deleted mighty, which made what remained seem uneventful and plain.
Midway through lap thirty-three, I noticed something glinting overhead. “Damming the River for Bright Futures,” I said, inspired. The way “bright” had both a literal and metaphorical meaning was especially pleasing. But by lap thirty-seven I’d discarded it as too subtle for a history teacher.
I considered my section on the physics of hydroelectric power generation. Particularly gripping, I thought, with its reference to the magical quality of falling water that could, by turning a rotor, create electricity. I imagined myself standing on the great dam, in a white coat and using my slide rule, as other, lesser scientists awaited my answer. The music of cascading water and the hum of transmission lines filled our ears. I looked up from my work. “Damming the River Today for a Better Tomorrow,” I announced to the scientists. An overweight man without hair paused and stared at me. My head hit the end of the pool. “Forty-four,” I whispered, after the ringing in my ears faded. But my latest title seemed familiar somehow, and I worried it had been the heading of one of the many articles supporting the dam in The Sentinel, the town’s longtime weekly.
Three small children broke away from a woman and leapt into the water. “You’ll drown,” she yelled. “You’ll drown!” They giggled and swam from her like young otters. “Damming the River,” I said as I watched, “for Generations to Come.” I repeated my brainstorm several times. Perfect. The perfect title. “Fifty-three,” I said at the end of the pool. A new high, over half a mile, and I wasn’t even tired. Thinking about a dam was somehow energizing. I decided to celebrate my title and record by going a mile.
Garret, still stretched out in the lounge chair, was talking to a redhead in a pink bikini. Norm stood at the shallow end. Without my glasses, the grease patch on his neck looked twice its size. He always had a grease patch somewhere, which tended to shift from day to day like the migratory birthmark of a born mechanic. He was smiling as he talked to Clifton Weiler, who sold car parts at his father’s and uncle’s store.
“You pervert!” Rachel Somers shouted as she held the top of her swim suit to her chest. The untied straps dangled as Vergil, with his black trunks and white skin, arched away over the water like a rogue dolphin.
I took a deep breath, rolled to my stomach, and started the second half-mile. I imagined myself in the long recreational lake that would replace the Saint John River after the dam was completed. Pleasure craft drawing water skiers sped in every direction. In the distance a cabin cruiser emerged from behind a point. It turned and coasted toward me. The motor smelled of leaking oil. Three middle-aged men with the sun at their backs, their faces indistinct yet somehow familiar, leaned over a brass rail. One of them said something I couldn’t make out. “Pardon?” I said. Another man spoke, but the words were still indistinct, as if coming from a great distance. “Pardon?” I said, louder.
“Unplug your ears! We’re going!” shouted Garret, dressed by the side of the pool. He took his sunglasses off to adjust them.
“Can’t go yet,” I puffed importantly. “I’m doing a mile.”
For an unguarded moment he looked both scared and impressed.
I grinned heroically and swallowed a mouthful of chlorinated water.
He quickly put his sunglasses back on and shrugged. “If you want to choke to death in an overgrown bathtub, that’s your business.” He followed Norm and Vergil out the gate.
It wasn’t long before I began feeling tired. Apparently there were limits to the energy an unbuilt dam could provide. But I’d already told Garret I was swimming a mile. Too late to turn back now.
By lap 88 my arms felt like anchors. A cramp in my foot had worked into my ankle. The people at poolside, already fuzzy because I wasn’t wearing my glasses, were getting harder to see. Each length was taking longer and longer. The cramp had reached my thigh. I was nauseous. My eyes were stinging. The water washing over my back felt hot and cold simultaneously. At 102 I thought I’d have to stop. But pretending I was behind the wheel of a green Continental with a brimming tank and whitewalls, speeding past the “Come Again!” sign on the outskirts of Woodstock, gave me energy.
At the end of the final lap, I reached out for a ladder rung as if it were a life preserver. I hung there, exhausted, exhilarated. The spinning slowed – I hauled myself out of the water. A blurry female form detached itself from a lounge chair and strolled toward me in a shimmering two-piece blue bathing suit. As she crossed that invisible line where my sight without glasses became clear, I saw it was Carolyn Shaw. She was not considered pretty, exactly. She had soft brown hair and soft brown eyes with a slight twinkle in them, as if she always found things a little funny. She was musical and played several instruments, including the viola – which made her, I believed, rather enigmatic. Even her speech was melodic, and I sometimes had the urge to hum along when she spoke to me. “You feeling okay?” she asked.
The spinning started again when I left the pool. My face was ice-cold. For a moment the lights went out.
She threw an arm around my waist to keep me from falling. The heat from her body shot through mine like an electric current. Her features swam back into view. “Better sit down,” she said.
“I’m all right,” I laughed manfully. “It’s hard getting used to land after you’ve just swum –” I paused for effect. “– a mile without stopping.”
She tweaked my cheek. “You boys are so cute when you’re trying to be impressive.”
I watched her climb down into the water. A blue strap had slipped to the edge of her shoulder. Without warning she turned and gave me the look of a mother who had just caught her son with his hand in the cookie jar. I searched the wet concrete around my feet, as if for something that had fallen out of my trunks.
After dressing, I dragged myself across the field and onto the bridge, so exhausted I barely had the strength to rip down one of the “Save Our River” handbills taped to a girder. A group called “The Association for the Preservation of the Saint John River in its Natural State” had been putting them up on weekends. Any that made it to Monday morning were removed by workers for the Power Commission. I crumpled the handbill into a ball and tossed it into the river, then leaned against the rail to rest from the exertion.
An orange canoe with a red band below its gunwales drifted into view. The man simply known as “the fisherman” leaned slowly back and cast with a single, smooth motion. The lure sped across the sky like a tiny cloud. He was a fixture in the town – or rather, on the rivers. He kept to himself and always wore a weathered hat that drooped over his brow. It was difficult to judge how old he was. He wasn’t thin, and didn’t look frail, yet the slow and economical way he moved implied a great stretch of experience. A sudden cool wind hinting of autumn snatched the canoe. It spun a full turn, slipped through the shadow of a willow, then started upstream. The fisherman laid down his rod and shifted forward until centred between the bow and the stern. With skilful strokes he steered from Island Park and into the wind. Partially obscuring the sun were bands of dark, purplish cloud. Some pieces of it had detached and, over the tip of the island, had taken on the shape of a rocking horse. I remembered the fisherman even from when I was a child, and I wondered how many years he’d fished the rivers. In the half-light he’d become a silhouette, and formed, with his canoe and shadow, a kind of rough cross. Streaks of light poured into the water giving it an antique, coppery sheen. It reminded me of the sepia photographs in my great-grandfather’s album, and I sensed the fisherman had been here a long time.
The scene wasn’t right, seemed misplaced somehow, like an image from the past carried in on the wind, and I found it unnerving enough to motivate my tired limbs to cross the bridge onto King Street. Hungry and thirsty, I paused by the Nighthawk Cafe. The Venetian blinds were drawn against both the sunlight and grimy facade of Weiler Brothers Auto Supplies across the street. Two doors up was The Sentinel office with its latest issue taped to the window. Through the glass in the door of the cafe, I saw the immense, nearly spherical outline of Miss Jonah, the owner, strolling languidly between the tables. Most were unoccupied. She was an albino with creamy-white hair and wore sunglasses during the day. The blinds of the cafe were always drawn until it got dark. She moved as slowly as I had off the bridge. Carrying around such bulk, I thought, must be nearly as tiring as swimming a mile. She put the two sundaes she was carrying, each with a spoon sticking out, on a back table. Ringing the room were old framed photographs of nineteenth-century Woodstock and its citizens. They seemed to watch as she ate, slow as sauce, a bite from one sundae, then the other, comparing each mouthful. I reached for the doorknob, thought better of it, and dragged myself to the Whoa! Daddy at the corner of Main. About thirty kids, all under ten, were guzzling ice-cream cones inside while parents, looking as exhausted as me, yelled at them. I looked at the ice-cream regretfully, and went home.
Next morning I slipped “Damming the River for Generations to Come” into my brown corduroy Sunday jacket and went to church. Vergil and I always sat in the Baptist balcony, so named during the thirties when there was a schism between the minister and some of the congregation of one of the town’s Baptist churches. The breakaway faction had begun coming to this church, so the balcony was built to accommodate them. Each Sunday Vergil and I sat there and played pencil chess in the hymnaries. The front blank pages of every book in the last three rows of pews had been worn thin from constant erasures. As I touched up my new paragraph on how a dam was like a fisherman that netted electricity, Vergil pondered his move. “I wish the rev would pipe down. I’m trying to concentrate.”
Reverend Hart, head of the only United Church in the area, was on one of his Baptist binges. It was tough being the sole liberal minister in a conservative town. Almost sadly he would deliver his lonely, earnest, low-key sermons on love and understanding and the need to tolerate other perspectives. But the majority tide of Christian orthodoxy, and maybe some residual energy seeping from the Baptist balcony, sometimes caught him up. Every few months he would fall off the liberal wagon. He would swagger to the pulpit in a kind of fundamentalist intoxication. His eyes would burn, he would wave and shout and jab like a soldier of God. But the next Sunday, as if feeling guilty over sins against his own reasonableness, he’d preach almost sheepishly on tolerance for the weaknesses of others. “There,” Vergil said, as he passed me the hymnary. “Slither your way out of that one.” Though I never had much trouble beating him, he was eternally optimistic.
“The cost of each sin is a debit eternal paid off in the sluices of hell –” The reverend’s use of metaphors increased during his binges. Adjectives tended to fall behind their nouns.
I erased Vergil’s knight and drew my bishop over it. “Check.” I passed him back the book, then pruned a couple of adjectives from the section that dealt with the flood of power such a huge dam would provide.
“Intentions good are naught but soporifics of the damned –”
“Well damn your eyes,” Vergil said. “So help me God, if you win again I’ll stand up and fart.”
I believed him, too. I examined his move – he’d lost another knight. Instead of taking it, I advanced a pawn.
“If wishes were horses then beggars would ride –”
“If wishes were rivers we’d fish all the time,” Vergil said, loud enough that the lady ahead of him twisted around to give him a dirty look. When she turned back he made a fish-face at her perm.
“We must shore up our souls against forces primeval –”
“Want to go fishing this afternoon?” Vergil asked.
I paused at my paragraph on how a town on the crook of a recreational lake would be more attractive to tourists than one that was just at the meeting point of two rivers. With a little more work I’d have yet another A+ for my growing collection. “Can’t – got to finish this up for tomorrow.”
“The floodwaters of lust are but the channels of damnation –”
Rachel Somers sat across the aisle and four tiers down. Her skirt had hiked itself halfway up her thighs. Her brown legs flexed in their nylons. “God,” Vergil said. “I wouldn’t mind flooding her channel.”
“To sacrifice now for tomorrow’s salvation –”
She crossed her legs. Her skirt slipped up even higher. Vergil groaned, looked into his crotch, and said, “He lives.” The lady ahead of him coiled around and gave him a prolonged stare. For a moment it looked like he was about to stand. I sacrificed a bishop and quickly passed him the hymnary.
“A tide luminous will sweep all sinners away –”
Carefully I reviewed the all-important closing sentence of my essay: “Only with a plethora of cheap and reliable energy sources can civilization march with confidence into the twenty-first century.” I sighed with satisfaction. I was especially pleased with plethora, which I’d found in my thesaurus, and was certain I would get the highest mark.
Vergil pulled out his collection envelope. The right compartment was for local work while the left was for overseas missions. He took the nickel from the overseas half and put it with the quarter in the local half, then ripped out the page with “Seeding the Word” and scrawled in the margins. I leaned over to see what he’d written, then decided I’d rather not know. He folded the page and stuffed it with the change into the local work compartment, resealed it, and wrote “For Rachel Somers” on the outside. The envelope snaked through a line of students, miraculously evading the adults. Rachel read the note. With one lightning motion she uncrossed her legs, yanked down her skirt, and stared back at Vergil with one of those complex female expressions which meant, depending on how you interpreted it, revulsion, encouragement, affection, contempt, or outrage. Reverend Hart, to emphasize one of his powerful metaphors, struck the pulpit so hard it toppled. He caught it with an inspired grab, but the huge Old Testament, heavy as concrete, thundered to the floor.
I finished “Damming the River for Generations to Come” later that evening. After reading through my thrilling turns of phrase several times, I phoned Garret and read him the new paragraph that said a dam was like a fisherman that caught electricity.
There was silence on the phone. “Do me a favour,” he finally said. “If anyone asks if you know me, tell them you don’t.”
In the living-room the grandfather clock that had belonged to my great-grandfather chimed ten times.
“Want to come down?” I asked. “The parents are gone till tomorrow.”
“Only if you promise not to read any more from that stupid essay.”
He was staying with his grandmother on Upper Main Street until Tuesday. Because she was half deaf and slept so soundly nothing could wake her, he could stay out as long as he wanted. My parents and two brothers had gone to some campground for the weekend. I’d managed to get out of going by pretending I had diarrhea. My mother had phoned earlier to tell me that the car wouldn’t start and so they wouldn’t be back until Monday, but it was still a school night and I couldn’t have anyone over.
Garret arrived with some records, which we played so loud the windowpanes rattled. We ate one lemon meringue pie, two boxes of chocolate-covered peanuts, and three bags of dulse the corner store sold like potato chips; drank four bottles of pop; and played a best-of-five series (which I won three games to one) on my Eagle Toys Official Six-Team tabletop hockey game. I started to read him more from my essay, but he said if I didn’t stop he’d blow his nose on my closing paragraph.
At midnight we watched a movie called The Brainiac. A mild-mannered scientist had discovered a way to boost his mental powers. At first he used his new abilities to help people, but soon the brain had taken on a life of its own. Larger and larger it grew until the feeble body could barely carry the load. To survive, it needed electricity, which it sucked from transmission lines. The scientist had become a maniacal monster, with an outsized luminous head, that prowled the city in search of ever more power.
“Wow!” I said, as the credits rolled. “That was great!”
Garret gave me a skeptical look, then shut off the set.
“How about another hockey game?” I asked.
He walked to the open window. The cars had stopped long ago. With the TV off, Woodstock seemed unnaturally quiet. “Let’s go downtown.”
“What for? Nothing’s open.”
“The Nighthawk might be.” Sometimes Miss Jonah would open her cafe late at night, which apparently had something to do with the light-sensitive eyes and preference for darkness of albinos. Garret rubbed a sticky fingerprint off the glass. “Besides. Who cares if nothing’s open. I just thought Woodstock might be kind of neat when everyone else we know is in bed.”
“It’s still the same place. Do you figure old buildings or people long gone sprout up at night like mushrooms?”
His eyebrows arched the way they did when something caught his interest or surprised him. “Who knows what goes on when we sleep.”
“Nothing goes –”
“Afraid of the dark?”
“I’m not –”
“Afraid we’ll bump into Brainiac?”
“That’s dumb,” I said too loudly. I glanced nervously out the window.
He leaned against the TV. “It’s different at night. Maybe things weird come out of the rivers.”
“Things weird?” I threw on my jacket with bravado, then slipped my essay into a pocket in case he changed his mind about hearing it. “The only thing weird here is you.”
We walked through the back yard to Chapel Street, then down past a string of dark houses. I almost jumped into the ditch when something crashed out of a tree on the United Church lawn. “Relax,” Garret said with a grin. “It’s just a coon...I think.”
On the telephone pole was another “Save Our River” handbill, taped high enough that it couldn’t be easily torn down. I looked around for something to stand on.
“What are you doing?” Garret asked.
I nodded at the handbill, just out of reach. “Got to rip it down.”
“What do you mean, ‘Why bother’. You can’t stop progress.”
“I’d like to meet this ‘everybody’. For someone you never see, he sure says a lot.”
He started down Chapel again. I hesitated, glanced at the handbill, then followed him. The only light on Main Street was from street lamps, one to a block. Two had burned-out bulbs. Darkness surrounded the buildings like inky gel. I thought about The Blob, another great movie I’d seen when my parents were out. The air was so quiet we could hear, from two blocks up, the splashing of the Meduxnekeag as it tumbled into the Saint John. We passed the hulking storefronts onto Creek Bridge, which joined the north and south halves of the town. Garret whistled a couple of bars, but it sounded too loud so he stopped. We leaned out over the rail. The rough and narrow river spilled darkly below.
“To think things actually live in there,” Garret said, looking at the water with a kind of nervous excitement. He shivered, then fastened the top button of his jacket. “I should have worn my winter coat.”
A hooting sound carried up the Saint John from the south end of Island Park. One of the willows shook out a winged shape. “Holy shit,” I whispered.
“It’s just an owl –”
“The fisherman is still in his canoe!”
Garret peered into the darkness. “I don’t see anyone.”
I waved my finger at a silhouette off the tip of the island. “You can just see his outline. He’s fishing, for God’s sake!” I stepped back from the rail, as if afraid it would give away.
Garret looked again, then passed me his white handkerchief. “Clean your specs – you’re seeing things.”
I blew my nose in it and passed it back.
“Gross!” Garret’s voice rang over the water.
The outline of the fisherman winked out around the point. I listened for splashing, some clue he was there, but the Saint John was perfectly still. Garret held out his handkerchief by a corner. It fluttered like a white bat into the river. “You owe me a new one,” he said.
We started up the other side of Main, pausing to look down King. Light through the window of the Nighthawk Cafe faintly illuminated the sidewalk.
“It is open,” Garret said, shaking his head. “Maybe she’s got customers.”
“Get off it. What kind of customers would she have in the middle of the night?”
The sidewalk momentarily darkened as something passed in front of the light from the cafe. The front door opened noiselessly, then closed.
“Let’s find out,” Garret said.
“I’m not sure that’s such a good –” From the corner of my eye, I saw something waver. As I snuck a suspicious backward glance over the Meduxnekeag, some distant streetlights went out. Then a nearer group went, then a nearer group still. A flash flood of darkness poured over the town. In just a few seconds everything had vanished.
“Holy shit,” Garret whispered.
“Power failure,” he said, regaining his composure. “Maybe Brainiac’s been into the transmission lines again.”
“Let’s go home,” I suggested.
He paused, just for a moment. “Okay.”
We strode, quickly now, up the street. As we passed the looming cenotaph to the Carleton County war dead, a tenuous light came on in an upper-floor window of the house where Reverend Hart lived. “He must have a kerosene lamp,” I said. His pacing shadow crossed the window. “Why’s he awake?”
“Maybe he’s wrestling his demons.”
I didn’t like the sound of that, and scrutinized the reverend’s restless shadow. “What are you talking about?”
Garret hesitated, then coughed. “Last year my old man tried to quit smoking. He fought with the old doll all evening and paced through the house half the night. She said he was wrestling his demons.”
I looked up again at the window, hoping I wouldn’t see more than one shadow.
“I better get going,” Garret said. “If my grandmother wakes up without power and finds out I’m gone, she’ll crap bricks.”
I didn’t like the idea of being left there alone. “Maybe we should go back down to –”
Already he was walking up Main. By the end of the block he’d disappeared in the darkness like a diver into deep water.
The shadow of Reverend Hart paused by the window. Its arms began to gesticulate, slowly, then with growing ferocity. A muffled yell, then something crashed to the floor. The shadow moved frantically back and forth, shouting, disappearing, then springing back to the window. What looked like a bible was clutched in his right hand. I searched for other figures, but didn’t see any. The shouting became a crescendo. I strained to hear the words, but except for “God” that punctuated the sentences like exclamation marks, I couldn’t make out anything. Suddenly there was silence. The shadow froze. Then a fist rose into the air, hovered, and smashed through the window. In the quiet of the night the sound of shattering glass was deafening.
My first instinct was to flee to the comfort and familiarity of home. But my fascination with this late-night drama, this window like a TV screen, overrode my fear. I slipped behind the cenotaph, half expecting awakened neighbours to come rushing into the streets. But the silence was as total as before the shouting. No sound of running feet. No doors flying open. The residents of the town slept undisturbed. Then, very quietly, the reverend’s door opened. The thin silhouette, faintly illuminated, slipped out. He kneeled onto the sidewalk where the window glass had fallen, and began to mumble what sounded like prayer as he put the pieces of glass into a bag with his left hand. His right hand was wrapped in a strip of cloth. For several minutes he picked up glass, then, instead of going back in, he started down Main.
I hesitated, just for a moment, then stole across the street and followed him. His feet scuffed down the sidewalk. The mumbling continued. He stopped in front of Oldtown Billiards. The words grew louder, he raised a fist – as if just the sight of the place, which he’d railed about during a Baptist binge, was enough to wring loose his last drops of anger.
I tensed, waited for his fist to crash through the window. But slowly he unclenched it and continued down Main.
“The wickedness of men was great...”
He paused at Netherwood’s Pharmacy, shook his head over something in the window, then turned down King Street.
“And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters...”
The quotes, from the Bible, I assumed, were growing clearer and faster.
“And it came to pass...that the waters of the flood were upon the town...”
His words had taken on a hymn-like quality, with the sound of the Meduxnekeag the accompaniment.
“And waters prevailed exceedingly; and the greatness of their loss was as great as their sin…”
In light spilling out through the window of the Nighthawk Cafe, Reverend Hart had become clearly visible. He was still wearing his Sunday morning outfit and white collar. The bag of shards hung heavily from his hand. He looked into the cafe and made a motion for the door. Then, scrunching up his shoulders, he walked toward the bridge and disappeared into the dark.
I froze by the cafe when I heard the slosh of something entering the water.
“Perfect night,” came a deep voice, almost in my ear, “for a free wild strawberry sundae.”
I jumped back, startled. Miss Jonah was standing in her doorway. I wondered how such a huge woman could have moved so quietly.
“Free wild strawberry sundae?” I repeated. It took a few seconds for what she’d said to register.
The fat under her chin shook as she nodded. “The ice-cream will melt with the power off. May as well put it to use.”
I glanced back at the bridge. “Reverend Hart. I think he just –”
“It’s all right,” she said. “Come on in.”
“But I heard –”
“It’s all right.” She rested her heavy hand reassuringly on my shoulder.
Burning kerosene lamps were on the front tables. I thought I saw some customers at an unlit table to the back. But a draft from the closing door made a lamp flare, and in the momentary brightness I saw that Miss Jonah and I were alone. She had owned the cafe a long time, and was her own best customer. She was huge, maybe two hundred and fifty pounds, and expanding. Each year’s new weight filled out each year’s new wrinkles. Though she must have been at least sixty, her face was still smooth, which helped give her an aura of timelessness. I sat at a corner table while she, humming in her husky voice, prepared a wild strawberry sundae. Often sullen during the day, she brightened up in the evening. During late shifts at the cafe, she’d earned a reputation for colourful language. Tonight, with the power and her sunglasses off, she was almost jovial. Her pinkish eyes glittered brightly in the light of the kerosene lamps.
Framed Victorian photographs of Woodstock scenes and residents hung from picture rails surrounding the room. A woman in white stood on the platform of the Queen Street railway station, which no longer existed. A man walked a white horse pulling a buggy in front of Connell House, which still stood, its massive white pillars intact, a few blocks away. Twelve men, holding instruments, sat in an open buggy on Main under a large sign that said “Band Concert Tonight”. A watchmaker in steel-rimmed glasses talked to a customer in front of a display of mantle clocks. Five firemen, wearing uniforms with big 1s on the chests, leaned against a strange-looking steam-powered fire engine that had to be pulled by horses.
In the dark far corner of the cafe was the “Arctic Soda Water Apparatus”, a Victorian soda fount which Miss Jonah said had once been in a drugstore called Apothecaries’ Hall, where Netherwood’s Pharmacy was now located. The fount was covered with levers and knobs and spigots, which made it look as complex as an airplane cockpit. It sat on its own marbled-topped table with an attached wrought-iron chair, which had managed, at least so far, to bear Miss Jonah’s ever-increasing mass. She called the contraption her time machine, and liked to say she rode it in every day from her home in the nineteenth century. “A different town back then,” she’d say. “Better, if you ask me.” Looking out from that shadowy room into a night with no streetlights on, I got the uncomfortable feeling I’d somehow taken a wrong turn into the past. If it hadn’t been for the free sundae, I’d have left.
“Eight scoops or nine?” she asked in her low, almost masculine voice, from over her shoulder.
I looked at her behind the counter, to see what kind of concoction would need so many scoops. Her wide back shielded her activity. From the counter, Wood, her deaf male Siamese cat, watched me with the indifference of cats that had lived a long life. Curled up on the chair of the soda fount was his sister, Stalk. Once a skilled hunter, she now mostly slept, though occasionally, when it got windy outside, she’d chase the dust balls blown about by drafts from the opening door. Both cats lived in the cafe and were older than me.
“Let’s make it nine,” she said, “to be safe.”
After a final flourish she carried over, on a serving platter, the biggest sundae I’d ever seen. Tiny wild strawberries, crushed almonds, and dark chocolate sauce spilled out from three columns of ice-cream. Each of the columns was three scoops high and reared up from a sea of yellowish whipped cream. On the edge of the platter was a large filigreed silver spoon. In a tall glass etched with ferns fizzed root beer.
Motionless, I admired the marvel before me.
“Eat up, eat up, ‘fore it melts.”
I guided the spoon through the sundae, collecting ice-cream, strawberries, almonds, sauce, and whipped cream for the first mouthful. “It’s great!” I said, my mouth full. A gob of ice-cream rolled down my chin and dropped back into the platter. One by one, each tiny strawberry exploded with taste as I chewed. I took off my glasses to concentrate more fully on the flavour.
She nodded knowingly. Her second chin flapped in agreement. “Wild strawberry sundaes are always at their best in the small hours.”
I noticed something on the inside of her front window, put my glasses back on, and saw it was one of the “Save Our River” handbills. “Who put that up?”
“The handbill. On your window.”
“Me. Who else?”
“But you can’t stop progress.”
“Every –” I stopped in mid-word, remembering Garret’s crack about how “everybody” said a lot but was never seen. I tried to think of an example of an actual person saying “you can’t stop progress,” but the only one I could think of was me.
“But it hasn’t been good for business, I’ll admit. None of the workers from the Power Commission have come in since. They walk by puckered up like pissed-off lemons.” She laughed so loudly my table, which she was leaning on, shook violently.
I grabbed my glass of root beer as it started to tip. Her moods, I knew, got sunnier when it grew dark, but I’d never heard her actually laugh. I swallowed a heaping spoonful of strawberries and ice-cream. Emboldened by its potency, I asked if something had put her in a better mood than usual.
As she looked at me, I realized I could have phrased my question more skilfully.
But then she chuckled. “You young arse,” she said, as she pointed toward the front window. “Look out there.”
Squinting, I peered past the handbill. “I don’t see anything.”
“That’s the point. We’ve got night for a change. I’m enjoying the power failure.”
“Enjoying the power failure?” I was so confused by that I nearly stopped eating.
“Electricity’s like a drug. The more of it folks get, the more they crave. They want to build the dam ’cause they’re addicted.”
I paused with a spoonful of sauce, and thought about Brainiac, foraging for another hit of power. “But how could we live without electricity?”
She nodded at the faces peering down from the old photographs. “They managed.”
It didn’t seem right to contradict someone who’d just given out a free wild strawberry sundae. So instead of arguing, I took a huge bite.
“They’ll bugger up a lot if the dam is built. Island Park will be flooded. The salmon will all be destroyed. Both of the bridges will go…it’ll be a different town.”
“Any change will be an improvement,” I said, trying to be funny.
She scowled and shook her head. For a terrible moment I thought she was going to take back the sundae. “That’s the trouble with folks nowadays. They think they’re sitting in shit till it’s gone, then realize it was honey all along. They like to savour what they had, but never what they’ve got.”
“Not true,” I mumbled, savouring a mouthful of whipped cream.
“And all the buildings on this side of the street, including mine, will be torn down.”
I looked at my sundae protectively, as if it were somehow threatened by the news that the cafe would disappear.
“These buildings have a long history. Some of them are survivors from the big fire of 1877. The only ones in the whole downtown core that made it.”
“You could always move the cafe to another building.”
“I’ve always been here,” she said, her voice going even lower. “And the cats are too old to be moved.”
Stalk shifted on the chair of the old soda fount. Wood, as still as a stuffed animal, peered into the darkness with wide pale eyes.
“But if the dam’s so bad, then why are they building it?”
“Afraid of the past. Afraid of the dark. Addicted to electricity.”
Stalk lifted her head from her paws. Wood slipped off the counter and sauntered, tail erect, to the door. A few seconds later it opened. Reverend Hart, soaked to the waist, slowly stepped in. His hair, wet with water or sweat, was plastered to his forehead. The cloth wrapped around his right hand was dark with blood. The agony and shame in his face was so palpable I had to turn away and look at my half-eaten sundae. A strawberry started to roll down a mound. I caught it with the spoon, scooped up some sauce, and slipped it into my mouth.
Miss Jonah strolled back to the counter, as if a sopping minister walking in this late at night was a regular occurrence. “Seat yourself, Rev. I’ll grab you a coffee.”
“Thanks,” he said in a whisper. With downcast eyes he sat at a front table. He hadn’t noticed me. The light from the kerosene lamp flickered over his face. His head hung low, as if the weight of it were too heavy to bear. I thought about Brainiac again, his head so laden and over sized he could barely support it. The reverend dropped his face into his hands and started sobbing.
I’d never seen a grown man cry, and I found it distasteful and frightening. My stomach was queasy. I took a big mouthful of ice-cream to settle it.
Miss Jonah, with a cup of coffee in one hand and a big bottle of root beer in the other, paused at my table and refilled my glass with the root beer.
“What’s wrong with him?” I whispered. “Is he sick?”
She shook her head. “His mother died when he was young. His grandmother, one of them God-crazy Reformed Baptists, raised him and would lock him in the cellar at night if she thought he’d misbehaved, which she thought he did a lot. If the poor little tyke much as let a fart, she’d figure the devil was crawling up his arse. Locking him up like that made him afraid of the dark…the inner kind too.” She shook her head again. “A wicked woman.”
“She must have taught English,” I said, thinking of Mrs. Colpitts, the only woman I knew who would, if the school allowed it, lock students in a dark cellar.
“He rebelled when he got older by joining the United Church, which the God-crazies considered about the same as joining the devil.” Her voice had deepened to almost a growl, and her face had grown even whiter, which I wouldn’t have thought possible. “But he still carries around that old bitch’s cellar in his head, and sometimes it opens up like a half-healed injury, and he panics and goes a bit wonky. And I guess that poor little tyke still inside him tries to brighten that cellar with the light of the God them crazies like scaring us with. But it doesn’t work, of course. In the end all hell breaks loose, and he winds up coming in here to get right again.” She glanced proudly around her cafe. “Got a higher recovery rate than the hospital.”
Inner dark. Portable cellars. I wasn’t sure I understood at all. “Why’s he all wet?”
“The old God-crazies used to do baptisms in the river, winter or summer. The rev never shook the idea, and does it to himself when his brain overheats.”
“Brain overheats?” All I could think of was Brainiac, his head getting hotter and hotter as he soaked up more power.
“It’ll make more sense when you’re older.”
“Hope not,” I said under my breath. My stomach was getting queasier. The queerness of things was getting to me. “And how can you baptize someone in winter in the river when it’s frozen?”
“How else? Chop a hole in the ice.”
I shivered, wiped cold sweat from my hands. “That’s crazy.”
She nodded. “The whole lot of them – crazy as a bag of hammers.”
Though I’d only eaten six scoops of ice-cream, my appetite had gone. I wanted to be gone too. From pictures and furnishings of a past century. From a man, respectable, head of a church, drenched and slumped and sobbing. From a woman, too white and overweight to be real, serving coffee and free sundaes in the centre of a sleeping, powerless town. And from this cafe that had changed, under cover of dark, into something threatening and unfamiliar. The feeling that I had stumbled into a backwater of time eighty years from home grew more intense. Panic seemed to gurgle up from the strawberries and ice-cream in my stomach. “Got to go,” I said, standing.
The reverend’s face shot up from his hands. It coloured with embarrassment. Only now had he realized I was there.
“Thanks for the sundae,” I said at the door. Even in the weak light of the kerosene lamps, I could see how red and mortified he was. I hesitated, tried to think of something nice to say. “Enjoyed your sermon this morning.”
His face grew even redder. I’d said the wrong thing.
“Good-night.” I ran out the door, turned up my collar, and headed home.
The panic increased. Without streetlights to illuminate them, the streets and building fronts had become as alien as the cafe. Without power, Woodstock was a different town: unexplored, unexplained, full of frightening secrets. I glanced behind me repeatedly, wondering who else might be out tonight. To keep my mind busy, I concentrated on important dates from my century. But imagined shapes like huge mushrooms boiled out of the dark. A black Continental without driver or engine slipped around a corner. The tailpipe issued a glimmering fog. The hood ornament was the size of a skull. A miniature skeleton swung from the rear-view mirror. Where the moon should have been was a luminous head that glowered at me through the clouds. Darkness seemed to open up like a vast cellar. I wanted to run but feared that the noise would trigger some monstrous pursuit. Ghosts from the past that wanted to keep me there. “1900,” I whispered, “the invention of magnetic tape. 1901: Marconi’s first trans-Atlantic radio message. 1902: hormones discovered. 1903: the first powered flight…” Each stride became a giant leap in the forward assault of mankind. But currents of fear shot through my groin. A cold bulb burned in my stomach. The houses, resistant, slipped by in slow motion, as if I were swimming through air.
Half a block from my house, I vomited. A bilious goulash of ice-cream, wild strawberries, almonds, sauce, and whipped cream spewed into the ditch. I wondered at how quickly such a heavenly concoction could be corrupted. When my stomach had emptied, I wiped my mouth on a fistful of weeds and stumbled home. With shaking hands I fumbled open our door, quickly closed it, and checked three times to be sure it was locked. After checking the window latches, I drew the curtains against the outside, then felt through the kitchen drawer for my father’s flashlight. Placed upright on the table, it threw a flickering circle over the ceiling. I took the phone off the hook so I could hear it hum. “At least that’s still working,” I whispered.
Eleven and a half minutes later, the electricity returned. I ran through the house flicking on every switch. I turned on the TV and radio. I threw two dry socks in the dryer and turned it on too. Then I went upstairs and got into bed: my clothes, the lights, the appliances still on. Only with the night-light of the morning sun on the hills did I finally close my eyes and fall asleep.
Analysis of Before the Flood
From chapter one of the novel, this selection introduces both the characters and conflict central to what becomes a story of development. Set in the western New Brunswick town of Woodstock at the confluence of the Saint John and Meduxnekeag rivers, the novel opens to the shenanigans of adolescent chums who are navigating the demands of their own restless growing amidst the demands of school and society. The implication is that the province and the boys are both coming of age, each on the path to independence. The boys are entering into manhood, and the province is moving out of its adolescence into a more mature adult future, that future symbolized by the damming of the St. John River at Mactaquac for hydroelectric capacity. (For New Brunswick, that long-awaited move into independence has become the most powerful of the post-Confederation narratives.) Yet that path to independence is not an uncomplicated one, for it is littered with the manipulations and expectations of others.
One such agent of manipulation is the boys’ teacher, Mrs. McCaffery. She is a zealot of progress, believing that “electricity had done more than any other invention to free us from drudgery” (5). Capturing the opportunity at hand, she assigns her grade ten class an essay on the building of the Mactaquac Dam on the Saint John River.
Samuel MacFarlane, the novel’s narrator and the star student among his group, aims to excel by embracing the ideology of progress that his teacher espouses. He conjures titles for his nearly completed essay: “Damming the Mighty River,” “Damming the River for Bright Futures,” “Damming the River Today for a Better Tomorrow” (6). He eventually settles on “Damming the River for Generations to Come” (10), a more ambiguous title that offers room for equivocation. His friends are not similarly inclined to excel academically or to capitulate to authority, one suggesting that Sam titles his essay “‘Who Gives a Dam’” (4). The point is that in the 1960s, as today, people of intellectual girth must negotiate the competing interests of industrialists, environmentalists, and others who separately claim that their position is best for the province. For one group, progress is a panacea for what ails a stubbornly archaic New Brunswick; for the other, progress leads to despoliation. The majority, however, couldn’t care less, their indifference an obstacle onto itself. The Sam MacFarlanes of our province must choose the barkers’ rosy future or the ruined idyll. There is rarely compromise. The choice is usually either/or: to look to the future or stagnate in the past. To be a New Brunswicker is to know those choices well.
With the dam comes erasure of the town’s heritage, as the headpond (the dam’s backwater) will flood their cherished Island Park, given to the town as a recreation site in 1910, and enjoyed by many. Without the dam the status quo reigns: few jobs and limited opportunity for growth. At least that is the threat. And the fact that most residents have become almost completely naturalized to the relationship between industry and growth, the one leading to the other, means that opposition to development is more symbolic than determinative. Though the novel’s anti-development activists distribute their “Save Our River” handbills, the novel makes it clear that development will proceed apace, enriching the few at the expense of the many. “‘You can’t stop progress’” (15) becomes an insistent subtext. And this despite what will be lost. Lost will be the salmon fishery and a river history and culture that author Wayne Curtis writes about (see The Literary Miramichi), and lost too will be the solidarity that the community enjoyed before development barkers divided the townsfolk between pro and con. That is the real New Brunswick story that is told in this novel.
In the midst of Sam’s confusion about the impending changes to his world a power failure grips the town, its timing seeming to affirm the need to stabilize the energy grid. Sam wanders the darkened town finding refuge in the Nighthawk Cafe, where he is treated to a nine-scoop, wild-strawberry ice cream sundae, the excess the result of the proprietor, Miss Jonah, feeding patrons before the outage ruins all her frozen foods. Her view of things schools the impressionable Sam: “‘That’s the trouble with folks nowadays,’” she says. “‘They think they’re sitting in shit till it’s gone, then realize it was honey all along. They like to savour what they had, but never what they’ve got’” (22). She concludes by surmising that development advances because people are afraid of the dark, an observation that Sam takes on board when he walks out of her café into streets that, without light, are “unexplored, unexplained, [and] full of frightening secrets” (25). Confused and disoriented, he becomes violently sick, vomiting the sundae he ingested as if to rid himself of the consequences of the dark. He thus becomes a witness to and model of living the literal, which means accepting the prevailing truths of his society: that damming the river will generate cheap electricity, create many new jobs, stimulate growth, and ensure a bright and prosperous future for all.
He gets his A+ by echoing that prevailing social truth, but his intelligence and commitment to the place of his birth put him on a quest to understand what structural change of this magnitude means for people, communities, and history. His quest becomes archetypal in how it parallels the way many New Brunswickers think of their home place.
Below the fresh
rectangle of sod:
a form that will survive
even those chiselled letters
Already, the soil
gathers round the bones
like a higher order of flesh.
First the telephone
Then the wind
loses its murmuring tongue
in the eaves.
like a ruptured bladder.
And the sun
not burning my eyes
though I stare at it.
And the angry figure
in wing-shaped splints,
bashing his trumpet,
blow by blow,
One by one
emerge from the midnight wood.
At the border of a frozen lake
the leader sniffs the air,
scans the horizon for tall silhouettes.
The snap of settling ice
rifles the silence.
They hunch in the cold
to look smaller.
They break for the opposite shore.
Their boots send hairline cracks
through the crusty snow.
Splitting cloud uncovers the moon –
searchlight over a wall of hills
which tears from each figure
a shadow of human dimensions.
The moon is a pocked
and lifeless sphere
a quarter-million miles away.
the light it casts
is very brilliant, very white.
Some who study philosophy
consider it odd,
that a flawed and distant object
could shine so brightly,
For astronomers, intent
on the nature of such light,
this causes no concern,
while lovers, intent
on each other,
give it little thought.
the long shadows
that crowd the window.
We write letters,
go about our business.
But the trips
to other rooms
become more frequent.
We pad by mufflers
hanging on hooks.
of our bungalow crack
as the temperature falls.
Analysis of Wilson’s Poetry
Alan Wilson’s poetry is both technical and experimental. Like the older Fred Cogswell, who experimented endlessly with forms as varied as the sonnet, haiku, and villanelle, Wilson is fascinated by the power of different formal structures to open distinct avenues of meaning. As he told interviewer Anne Compton, his poetic process involves the search for a form to “spotlight” a particular feeling or meaning (88). When the form is not found, or when the marriage of feeling and form is not successful, Wilson abandons the poem.
The poems above, all from Wilson’s first collection, reveal his interest in the hidden orders that animate the universe. That interest has been described as formalist, gothic, spiritual, and epic; however, the differences that those terms suggest do not matter. Poets, as the antennae of the race, don’t categorize their hunches – they simply reveal them. And we have seen much of this sort of revelation in the New Brunswick curriculum: Alfred G. Bailey, Elizabeth Brewster, John Thompson, Allan Cooper, M. Travis Lane, Brian Bartlett, and others have pulled back the layers of the ordinary to explore the hidden worlds beneath. Each writer has extended his/her vision beyond the immediate, and each has discovered things that are unsettling and strange.
Is that interest in the hidden or gothic a New Brunswick trait? Likely not, but the province’s writers have followed the impulse in order to understand where and who they are. And they have pursued it in a broader context that has desired to turn New Brunswick space into a rural idyll. From the time of the early Loyalists, who desired a gentleman’s utopia, to the time of the central Canadian federalists, who sought in the unhurried Maritimes a therapeutic alternative to their harried urban spaces, New Brunswick has been denuded and simplified. The province’s writers have rejected that reduction, seeking to understand their space in more complex ways. Enter Alan Wilson and the writers named above.
Wilson’s poems begin from the premise of a deeper complexity, a “higher order” (“Headstone”) that animates all things. That order, not necessarily of the Christian narrative, will outlast us all, even the “chiselled letters” on stone. Flesh and blood, sod and trees, are merely individual things in a complex universe. Though we invest all our hope in humanness, Wilson is more democratic, perhaps ruthlessly so. Grass and flesh are equal in his eyes – like the stone, both are “animate” and both ultimately fail. One of the truths of our world is thus “equipment failure.” What we make will break, regardless of how vigorously we defend it. (Dam builders should take note, as should technology’s true believers.) A fundamental law of matter is that it cycles from one form to another. Wilson’s opening line in “Equipment Failure” is thus brilliantly deployed: “First the telephone / goes dead.” After that, we are alone to face the gales by ourselves. Government ceases to exist once the hurricane starts.
The poems that follow observe the same logic; it is not that we humans are small (Wilson has not demoted us) but that we are simply one of many carbon elements. It is not that we have limited sight or refuse to see, but that we cannot possibly see all that is occurring. We see or do not see what suits us; we see or do not see what is under our noses. Thus, philosophers, astronomers, and lovers take different positions regarding moonlight (“The Moon”). Each does not see what the others see clearly. Nor do we see the isobars, those fine shapes that purport weather (“Isobars”). Instead, “[w]e write letters, / feed children, / go about our business.” Natural law surrounds us, as do the maps and patterns that display it, yet we are oblivious to it all. That is simply how we live, perhaps how we must live.
Is that an indictment of us? No, not as Wilson writes it. As he told Anne Compton, “There’s a pattern there that our minds can’t get around. There’s a limit to our understanding because there’s a limit to our [mental] architecture…. Our minds are not structured to handle that depth of nature. Where the rational ends … is where mysticism starts” (83). It is also where art and literature starts, their forms enabling better sight.
Questions and Considerations for Reflection
► Wilson’s preoccupation with the crumbling of built environments brings to the surface a pattern that is recognizable among New Brunswick’s contemporary poets: M. Travis Lane, Anne Compton, Brian Bartlett, and Wilson write about change as not just an arbitrary process but as a physical law, a law of entropy (or levelling and dissipation of energies) that is a central feature of both our material worlds and, as importantly, our histories and narratives. While the effects of physical law are easy enough to see in matter, the effects are not always easy to see in history and narrative. Readers of Wilson’s work will want to consider this aspect of change, examining how he applies natural laws to seemingly immaterial things like histories and communities.
► Advanced students of the province will want to read Before the Flood next to Lilian Maxwell’s The River St. John and Its Poets (1947), Esther Clark Wright’s The Saint John River (1949), and George Frederick Clarke’s Six Salmon Rivers and Another (1960). Wayne Curtis’ ruminations on his own Miramichi River as the repository of story, myth, and history also warrant comparative consideration here. As a province with three of the great rivers of the Northeast – the Restigouche, the Miramichi, and the Saint John – New Brunswick history is infused with water. That our literature treats this dominant aspect of our landscape (and our identity) lightly is one of the curiosities of the province. It is a curiosity that bears discussion.
► More specifically, Riel Nason’s novel The Town That Drowned (2011) should be read as a companion piece to Wilson’s Before the Flood. Both novels deal directly with the damming of the St. John River at Mactaquac, and both consider the consequences of submerged histories and communities. Nason’s novel is a similar coming of age story set in the 1960s amidst turbulent structural change. A recent honours thesis at the University of New Brunswick – Véronique Thériault’s “An Ecocritical Analysis of Two New Brunswick Novels and the Mactaquac Dam” (2016) – considers both works through an eco-critical lens.
Strategies for Teachers
Strategy 1: Pre- and Post-Dam Images (Before the Flood)
Ask students to locate/view pre- and post-1968 images of Woodstock – particularly Island Park and the rest of the Mactaquac Headpond (the dam’s backwater) – to get a sense of the magnitude of watercourse change. One good resource of satellite images (you can scroll over each image to transform from pre- to post-dam and back) can be found here.
If students live in the St. John River area, they could also be encouraged to collect and share community stories about how the dam changed people’s lives.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Use the electronic network and other sources of information in ways characterized by complexity of purpose, procedure or subject matter
Strategy 2: The Brainiac (Before the Flood)
Early in the story, the narrator and Garret watch the movie The Brainiac, a movie about a scientist who becomes a “maniacal monster” in the search for more and more electricity. The movie seems to affect how the narrator experiences the later events of the night. After discussing the reverberations of this viewing in the novel, ask students to suggest another movie that the characters could watch instead of The Brainiac, one that would change the way the narrator processes the power outage, the Reverend’s breakdown, Miss Jonah’s thoughts on electricity being like a drug, or any other element of the evening. Ask them to write a paragraph describing their movie suggestion, then while sharing, to discuss how this might cast the later events of the chapter in a new light. Perhaps, to get them thinking, ask students to consider how watching the currently most popular films would affect the mood of the narrator – if he had just watched a slasher film, a sci-fi film depicting a technological paradise of the future, a dystopian thriller, a romantic period piece, etc., how would that film affect the mood and perspective of the narrator?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Writing and Representing: Demonstrate a commitment to the skilful crafting of a range of writing and other representations
Strategy 3: Suggestive Titles (Before the Flood)
The narrator’s effort to find the perfect title for his essay, landing on an ambiguous and suggestive one, cues the reader to consider the title of this novel. Ask students to brainstorm possible connotations for “before the flood.” What might be its double meanings? Model willingness to make wild suggestions yourself so students feel comfortable sharing what comes to them. It is likely that students will note the biblical allusion, along with the idea that many of the locations featured will be flooded. Suggest that students also consider how the title might relate to adolescence. Have the students discuss not only what the title reminds them of, but how it makes them feel. Does the title give them a sense of apprehension or anxiety? Excited anticipation? Are floods inevitable or preventable? Destructive or generative?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Articulate and justify points of view about texts and text elements
Strategy 4: Do We Ignore Artists at Our Peril? (Before the Flood)
Ask students to make a list of all the resources (materials or people) that planners and policy makers in New Brunswick should consider before making decisions about mega projects like the refurbishment of the Mactaquac Dam. Compare this list to the resources planners actually are consulting to determine disparities and discrepancies. Do either of those lists include the perspective of writers or other artists, and the wisdom of novels like Before the Flood and The Town That Drowned? In writing his novel, Wilson reflected for years about the impact of the dam on local and provincial cultures. He spoke with residents, studied the populations of Carleton and surrounding counties, and had the advantage of hindsight, writing the novel many years after the dam was operational. If today’s provincial government planners and policy makers don’t take that long reflection seriously, then why don’t they? Is there a sense, perhaps, that fiction is not a serious medium in which to think about the impacts of development, or is something else at work?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Speaking and Listening: Articulate, advocate, and justify positions on an issue or text in a convincing manner, showing an understanding of a range of viewpoints
Strategy 5: Infinitely Strange (“Headstone” and “Tale”)
In an interview with Anne Compton, Wilson commented that “if you look at things a little steadier than we normally do, you’ll start seeing them differently. That’s how I see the world: It’s infinitely strange” (86). In this, Wilson’s approach to what we casually and dismissively call “the real” is similar to that of Allan Cooper (see the earlier module The Tantramar Revisited).
- Ask students to compare Wilson’s “Tale” with Cooper’s “The Form.” Are both poets referring to the same creatures? How does each writer’s way of “seeing” these animals differ from the typical way humans see, or fail to see? Are “Tale” and “The Form” good titles for the poems?
- Ask students to compare Wilson’s “Headstone” with Cooper’s “After Rain.” Cooper’s speaker reflects on the after-death experience of his father, whereas it is unsaid whose headstone Wilson writes about. Do students think it is the headstone of someone the speaker loved or someone unknown to the speaker? Which perspective on death do students find the most surprising or strange? The most comforting or respectful? The most honest? Is there a discrepancy between “the most comforting” and “the most honest”? Why?
- Challenge students, perhaps as a homework or writing assignment, to look at something “steadier than we normally do.” Discuss potential techniques beforehand, such as looking as if one were viewing the thing for the first time; of thinking deeply about the connections between the thing and its surrounding environment; of looking from an angle or position one is not accustomed to; of looking for a prolonged period of time without distraction; of closing one’s eyes and listening intently; and so on. Does anything strange come to their notice? For example, did their minds leap to unexpected connections between the things they were contemplating and seemingly different things or experiences? Can they speak/write about or otherwise depict the experiences in a way that would help other people feel the connection or perspective they felt at the time?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Note the relationship of specific elements of a particular text to elements of other texts
Brebner, Diana. “First Novels: Crossing the Uncompassed Landscape of Human Affairs.” Rev. [Brief] of Before the Flood, by Alan R. Wilson. Books in Canada 28.6 (1999). 22 July 2020 <http://www.booksincanada.com/article_view.asp?id=1240>.
Clarke, George Frederick. “The Saint John River.” Six Salmon Rivers and Another. Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1960. 84-120.
Compton, Anne. “The Poetry of Numbers: Alan R. Wilson.” Meetings with Maritime Poets. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2006. 81-94.
Denham, Paul. “Various Alphabets.” Rev. of Counting to 100, by Alan R. Wilson. Canadian Literature 155 (Winter 1997): 180-181.
Fisher, Gordon. “Of Time and the River.” Rev. of Before the Flood, by Alan R. Wilson. Canadian Literature 170-171 (Fall-Winter 2001): 249-250.
Goguen-Hughes, Line. “Wilson’s Before the Flood Brims with Life.” Rev. of Before the Flood, by Alan R. Wilson. Sunday Herald 06 Feb 2000: C8-9.
Holland, Eva. Rev. of Before the Flood, by Alan R. Wilson. In 2 Print (Spring 2000): 34.
Little, Melanie. “Nation of Haunted Childhoods.” Vancouver Sun 28 Aug 1999: E7-8.
Maxwell, Lilian M.B. The River St. John and Its Poets. 2nd printing. Sackville, NB: Tribune Press, 1947.
Nason, Riel. The Town That Drowned. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2011.
Scobie, Stephen. “Poetic Pre-Texts.” Monday Magazine 23.6 (30 January-6 February 1997): 16.
Smith, Brian. “Cry Me Two Rivers.” Rev. of Before the Flood, by Alan R. Wilson. Literary Review of Canada 8.8 (2000): 3-5.
Thériault, Véronique. “An Ecocritical Analysis of Two New Brunswick Novels and the Mactaquac Dam.” Hons. Thesis. University of New Brunswick, 2016.
Wilson, Alan R. Animate Objects. Winnipeg, MB: Turnstone, 1995.
---. Before the Flood. Dunvegan, ON: Cormorant, 1999.
---. Counting to 100. Toronto, ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 1996.
---. Sky Atlas. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2008.
Wright, Esther Clark. The Saint John River. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1949.
For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Wilson, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Alan Wilson for allowing us to use the fiction and poems above for this curriculum. Further use or distribution of this work, however, is a violation of Canadian copyright law and is strictly prohibited. Under no circumstance may literary material used in the curriculum be reproduced, distributed, or stored without the permission of the copyright holder.
The first selection above comes from Chapter 1 of Alan Wilson’s Before the Flood. Dunvegan, ON: Cormorant, 1999. 1-26. Each of the poems above appears in Wilson’s Animate Objects. Winnipeg, MN: Turnstone Press, 1995.
All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.