Saturday, May 16, 2009

Late Nights on Air

by Elizabeth Hay (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2007)

Elizabeth Hay is quite a well known Canadian writer, with previous novels that were finalists or winners for major national book awards. Especially pertinent to this book, she formerly worked for CBC Radio in Yellowknife (as well as Winnipeg and Toronto). Late Nights on Air is set in Yellowknife in the summer of 1975, and revolves around characters who work at the CBC radio station there. Especially prominent are two young women in their 20s - Dido, who starts out very confident, and Gwen, who starts out very timid. If one of these characters is based on Hay, herself, I'm betting it's the timid one. There's also an older man named Harry, who as the story begins is on his way down the career ladder, and an assortment of other characters who are important but in a sense not central.

As a radio person myself, I love the parts of the story that have to do with learning about radio - the mic technique, the creation of sound effects, recording in the field, and so forth. During the period of the story, CBC is re-focusing its efforts and television is on the verge of eclipsing radio - although, for me, radio is still more important than television even in the CBC of today, and still the best-produced element of the national network.

More deeply explored than the radio angle of this book is the North, and in the end I would say the North is truly the principal character. The Yellowknife of this period is lovingly detailed, but as the book expands, the story grows to encompass the extensive Federal inquiry on a 2,200-mile gas pipeline planned to run from Prudhoe Bay across the Yukon on to the south. Hay and Gwen were great admirers of Canadian Supreme Court Justice Thomas Berger, who traveled for three years around the Arctic listening to witnesses, with great respect for all. I have found some of the CBC's coverage of these hearings archived online and even more powerful, video clips as well as audio from the hearings here. The CBC website confirms Hay's impression, that Berger's "report shocked the government that appointed him, and was heralded by some as 'Canada's Native Charter of Rights.'"

A related aspect of Late Nights on Air revolves around the history of the doomed 1927 expedition led by explorer Jack Hornby to Canada's Northwest Territories. About the last third of the book is devoted to two men and two women from the radio station following in Hornby's footsteps, and becoming intimately acquainted with the spartan but various terrain of the Canadian Arctic. This section is beautifully written and creates strange and lovely pictures in the mind.

The way the book is built includes many surprising changes of the wind - both literally, and in terms of the direction of the story. Hay has a way of throwing out little warnings that something dire is going to happen in the future and leaving you waiting for it in a state of suspense, wondering if the part of the story she's telling now is going to reveal the disaster or not.

There's a lot of love and awe in this story. The human dynamics seem mostly realistic, and sometimes spark sharp memories for me. There is also the makings of an interesting reading list, if one wants to collect the wide variety of literary and historical references that appear throughout. I found the book informative and engaging and recommend it very much.

-- Frieda Werden

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