by Krista Foss

Roughly based on the 2006 Grand River land dispute in Caledonia, Ontario, Krista Foss’ poised debut is about the fallout from the Mohawk blockade of a housing development in Ontario’s tobacco country. Outwardly, Smoke River has the affect of issue-driven fiction. But by allowing her vivid ensemble of characters to grab hold of the wheel, Foss manages to steer the novel away from an object lesson in native-white relations to focus on the personal quandaries that arise from the characters’ complex, overlapping allegiances.

SMOKE RIVER Krista FossAs the novel begins, a smarmy billboard targeting wealthy urban retirees has just gone up on the exurban subdivision that serves as Ella and Mitch Bain’s mid-life investment scheme. Though Ella, a trim and fastidious A-type, prides herself on the fact that, when it comes to natives, she’s “one of the tolerant ones”—she even reads about treaty rights in the local paper—she and Mitch have nevertheless failed to uncover the fact that the development, which borders the local reserve, is on disputed territory.

Leading the blockade are Helen Fallingbrook and her niece Shayna, both of who harbour personal tragedies: Helen is a residential school survivor while Shayna’s young son was struck and killed by a car a few years ago. Like Coulson Stercyx, the white farmer she’s in a sort-of relationship with, Shayna gave up an upwardly mobile life in the city—in her case, as a lawyer—to return to her community. Now, as Shayna struggles to establish a leadership role outside the cronyism of the male-dominated band council, Coulson works his parents’ old tobacco farm across from the development.

Tobacco remains, stubbornly, the town’s economic lifeblood. It also furnishes Foss with a perfect, ready-made symbol: traditionally sacred to one community, it has become a political liability to the other (Ella, who find her own roots as the daughter of tobacco farmers a humiliation to be surmounted, has a job with the Tobacco Diversification Office). Still, the reserve’s discount cigarette stands are one of the few places natives and whites regularly come together.

As the blockade inevitably rends the community along racial lines, Foss shifts her gaze to the mini-fractures that appear within the camps themselves. Shayna finds herself the recipient of a patronizing strategy lecture from her lawyer ex-husband who now works with the band council. In town, meanwhile, Ella’s daughter Stephanie, who has a crush on a boy from the reserve, angrily admonishes her parents for their ignorance about treaty history.

Foss ensures that each character gets a turn airing his or her backstory (though, by and large, the flashbacks add depth to the narrative, structurally speaking there’s a certain lather-rinse-repeat quality to them). Not surprisingly, it’s those who, whether by circumstance, birth or choice, straddle the divide between town and reserve that compel our attention the most. This group includes Shayna, Coulson and Elijah Barton, the son of a white father and Mohawk mother who’s always been forced to live, literally and figuratively, on the periphery. Elijah’s enduring outlier status is presented, convincingly, as intrinsic to the acumen that has made his tobacco business a massive success.

The plot’s pivot point comes when Shayna’s niece Cherisse is discovered beaten and raped in Coulson’s field. Various clues suggest the involvement of Las, Ella’s star athlete son (an outward winner inwardly oppressed by the weight of his mother’s sky-high expectations) who, along with the mayor’s sociopathic son Gordo, has just come off a booze-fuelled bender aimed at wreaking havoc with the protesters. As the evidence against Las piles up, the bargaining alters its focus from the land to the reputations now at stake.

Foss is sometimes overly helpful in pre-digesting her characters’ intentions and behaviour for us. We’re informed, for instance, that the mayor “sits in her plum-coloured SUV with the windows closed to keep the air conditioning in and the public out.” But to me the novel’s only glaring misstep is having Las’ ennui morph not—as had seemed likely—into depression or withdrawal, but into shocking out-of-character violence.

Outweighing these reservations is Foss’ crisp dialogue and inventive use of metaphor and simile, which can range from the gently visual to the intentionally jarring (a ringing cellphone is “jittery as a marsh bird” while native women “were tossed from cars like fast-food wrappers”). Though the novel’s native characters are, overall, treated more sympathetically, Foss isn’t out to write a morality tale. Instead, she probes their doubts and uncertainties in subtle, interesting ways. At one point Shayna infuriates Cherisse by declaring that her favourite story about a Mohawk princess isn’t—as Cherisse’s mother had always told her—a Mohawk story (delivering this news Shayna speaks “coldly, plainly, like a school principal or someone on the news.”) The vignette seems to riff on the larger issues at stake: Did the story’s power lie, for Cherisse, in the story itself or in her putative ownership of it?

—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor