So having now read two of John Valliant’s books – The Tiger and now, The Golden Spruce – I’m prepared to give him title of Most Best Genre Blender. It’s hard to tell you whatkindof book The Golden Spruce is because it’s a combination of straight up history (but of various subjects – colonization, the logging industry in BC), mythology, biography and narrative. The effect of the genre shifting – and it is shifting, between paragraphs and within chapters the “kind” of story subtly changes without announcement or fan fare, rather the recognition that some kinds of stories are better told/better read as myth, or personal narrative, or statistical history.
The book uses the story of the golden spruce as a loose focus around which to depart with lessons in plant mutation, descriptions of colonial-indigenous encounters, retellings of oral stories, musings on the fate of the “criminal” Grant Hadwin (musings, too, on whether he be criminal or something else) and meditations on the future of logging/trees in BC. The story? A singularly exceptional tree on Haida Gwai that is golden, rather than green (the precise reasons for the golden colour – or the supposed reasons – are taken up in chapters in the book) that is revered by the Haida, the object of tourist attraction and the unlikely object of the errant environmentalist, Grant Hadwin’s, misdirected consciousness raising environmentalist campaign.
I loved the form of the book – the shifting genre approaches, the range and breadth of information covered – as it gestures to the complexity of any issue/story. Our understandings of historical or current political/environmental/social issues cannot be understood in a simplistic, or teleological, telling; rather, anything approaching understanding must come from building a wide contextual net, disallowing firm conclusions and arguing for the incompleteness of any telling – even the most wide-ranging and intentionally thorough.
I loved the book, too, for its examination of place as character. As The Tiger uses an animal as protagonist, The Golden Spruce allows the place of Haida Gwai and BC more broadly – to be a living, breathing, changing, demanding, character: complete with hypocritical actions, fraught decisions, failures and triumphs. The setting really does read as “alive” in a way that so beautifully aligns with the thematic intention of the novel: that of encouraging the reader to think carefully about their engagement with, and responsibilities to, the environment. Rather than positioning the environment as something to be acted upon, or dealt with, by making the environment a living character Valliant makes the case that we must engage in a relationship with the world around us.
So yeah. Read it, okay?