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The Post-Apocalyptic Primitives of Labrador

John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955)

I don’t know how necessary a plot summary is for this book — do most people recall it from high school? In brief, the survivors of something know as “Tribulation” (nuclear holocaust, presumably) live on in small communities, where they are guided by religion and watch vigilantly for any mutation of plant, animal or human life.

The main character, David, befriends a girl named Sophie, who cannot go to school or play with other children because she was born with six toes, and if she is discovered she will be banished to “the Fringes”. In this conversation, David is trying to fill her in on some of what he is learning in school:

The world, I was able to tell her, was generally thought to be a pretty big place, and probably round. The civilized part of it — of which Waknuk was only a small district — was called Labrador. This was thought to be the Old People’s name for it, though that was not very certain. Round most of Labrador there was a great deal of water called the sea, which was important on account of fish. Nobody that I knew, except Uncle Axel, had actually seen this sea because it was a long way off, but if you were to go three hundred miles or so east, north, or north-west you would come to it sooner or later. But south-west or west, you wouldn’t; you’d get to the Fringes and then the Badlands, which would kill you.
It was said, too, though nobody was sure, that in the time of the Old People Labrador had been a cold land, so cold that no one could live there for long, so they had used it then only for growing trees and doing their mysterious mining in. But that had been a long, long time ago. A thousand years? — two thousand years? — even more, perhaps? People guessed, but nobody really knew. There was no telling how many generations of people had passed their lives like savages between the coming of Tribulation and the start of recorded history. Only Nicholson’s “Repentances” had come out of the wilderness of barbarism, and that only because it had lain for, perhaps, several centuries sealed in a stone coffer before it was discovered. And only the Bible had survived from the time of the Old People themselves.  (33)

There are other references to Labrador, and also to “the big island of Newf,” but the passage above contains the essentials. It’s a remarkable collection of common ideas about Canada, all captured in a couple of paragraphs. First there is the idea that Canada is cold — so cold that no one could live there for long, which is odd given that people have been living in Labrador for a while. The “Old People” using Labrador for growing trees and mining constitutes another iteration of the common idea of Canada as a country that is useful mainly for providing natural resources, and the importance of fish connects with this as well. And then there is that word “wilderness,” which seems here to be used metaphorically in connection with barbarism, but is nevertheless suggestive of Canada as a country lacking in civilization.

This last idea is further developed through a conversation between David and his Uncle Axel:

… Where are they and their wonderful world now?’
‘”God sent Tribulation upon them,”‘ I quoted.
‘Sure, sure. You certainly have taken in the preacher-words, haven’t you? It’s easy enough to say — but not so easy to understand, specially when you’ve seen a bit of the world, and what it has meant. Tribulation wasn’t just tempests, hurricanes, floods and fires like the things they had in the Bible. It was like all of them together — and something a lot worse, too. It made the Black Coasts, and the ruins that glow there at night, and the Badlands. Maybe there’s a precedent for that in Sodom and Gomorrah, only this’d be kind of bigger — but what I don’t understand is the queer things it did to what was left.’
‘Except in Labrador,’ I suggested.
‘Not except in Labrador — but less in Labrador and Newf than any other place,’ he corrected me.  ‘What can it have been — this terrible thing that must have happened. And why? I can almost understand that God, made angry, might destroy all living things, or the world itself; but I don’t understand this instability, this mess of deviations — it makes no sense.’   (70)

This fills out the picture of the post-Apocalyptic world a bit: the Black Coasts are the major U.S. cities, which have been reduced to burned rubble, and the glowing at night indicates the after-effects of nuclear war, as do the “deviations,” which are the genetic mutations that lead to people with six toes and so on, like Sophie. What is interesting for our purposes here, though, is that Newfoundland and Labrador suffered less than the other regions. The idea appears to be that these areas, isolated and remote from large population centres, would not have been targets for direct nuclear strikes, but would only be affected by the fallout from strikes on the major U.S. cities to the south. So again we have the idea of Canada generally, and Newfoundland and Labrador in particular, as being essentially remote wilderness places without enough people or industry to make them worth targeting in nuclear war.

Who Are These People Anyway?

The first passage quoted above also raises the tricky question of time. Apparently no one is certain how much time has passed since the Tribulation, but it is spoken of here as at least a thousand years, and in terms of many generations. Given that the ancestors of the characters in the novel have been living in Labrador for that long, it’s reasonable for us to ask: are the people in this book Canadians?

Since Labrador was considered uninhabitable in the time of the Old People, we are perhaps meant to assume that the original ancestors of the people now in Waknuk fled there from somewhere further south (the U.S.?) during the Tribulation, and that Labrador was remote enough that it was spared the destruction that reduced the more heavily inhabited areas of the continent to blackened rubble. At this point, however, they have been there long enough that it seems fair to consider the characters in the novel Canadians — or at least Labradorians, given that that name has persisted even though Canada itself no longer seems to exist as an entity.

This is of note because of what happens later in the novel. I don’t want to get bogged down in a tedious plot summary, but a little bit is necessary here: David, his cousin Rosalind and his younger sister Petra and several of the other characters are empaths who can communicate with one another through their thoughts alone. Petra, however, is much more powerful than the others, and is able to communicate with a far more technologically advanced group of Tribulation survivors who seem to live in New Zealand (called “Sealand”). In the end the New Zealanders come to rescue Petra, and David and Rosalind as well, from Labrador, where their special abilities put them on the wrong side of the religious zealots who run the Waknuk government.

The following passages come from the lead-up to this rescue, when Petra is trying to communicate with the empaths from New Zealand. Here they are trying to convey where they are:

‘Good,’ said Rosalind. ‘Look out, everybody! Here we go again.’
She pictured an ‘L’. Petra relayed it with devastating force. Rosalind followed up with an ‘A’ and so on, until the word was complete. Petra told us:
‘She understands, but she doesn’t know where Labrador is. She says she’ll try to find out….’   (125)

This is rather heart-breaking, really: our heroes are struggling to be rescued by the powerful super-beings from New Zealand, but with all their advanced technology and empathic powers, they’ve never heard of Labrador. In the post-Apocalyptic world, as in the pre-Apocalyptic one, Canada is just not significant enough to have registered on the minds of anyone outside of it.

And then the final insult, just after Petra has ended a conversation with the “Sealanders”:

We let her [Petra] prattle on. It was difficult to make sense of a lot of the things she said, and possibly she had not got them right, anyway, but the one thing that did stand out clearly was that these Sealanders, whoever and wherever they were, thought no small beans of themselves. It began to seem more than likely that Rosalind had been right when she had taken ‘primitive’ to refer to ordinary Labrador people.   (134)

So there we have it: in the end, our more-or-less-Canadian heroes are reduced to being called “primitive” by the New Zealand superbeings, who come riding to the rescue at the end because the empathic Labradorians, for all their extraordinary abilities, aren’t able to defeat a rag-tag bunch of mutants on their own.




Even the Geese Can’t Stand It!


Derek Mahon, Night-Crossing (1968)

I am once again indebted to Professor Ronald Marken’s essay on references to Canada in Irish poetry,* this time for bringing Derek Mahon to my attention. (You can read parts of the essay through Google Books.)

Two poems in Night-Crossing (Mahon’s debut collection) mention Canada, and each shows a different perspective on our country, one familiar, one not. We’ll begin with the familiar.

Canadian Pacific

From famine, pestilence and persecution
Those gaunt forefathers shipped abroad to find
Rough stones of heaven beyond the western ocean,
And staked their claim and pinned their faith.
Tonight their children whistle through the dark,
Frost chokes the windows. They will not have heard
The wild geese flying south over the lakes
While the lakes harden beyond grief and anger –
The eyes fanatical, rigid the soft necks,
The great wings sighing with a nameless hunger.   (27)

At least in its opening, the poem portrays Canada as a country offering hope to those who are bold (or desperate) enough to leave the old world of Europe for the new opportunities offered by North America. We’ve come across this idea before in Dickens and Basil Bunting, to name just two; but from the fifth line on the poem takes a distinct turn, undercutting the promise implicit in the opening. Frost is “choking” the windows and the lakes are “hardening”, suggesting the advancing cold and dark of a harsh Canadian winter; and the wild geese, wiser apparently than the (Irish?) immigrants who came to Canada, are heading South to avoid the cold. As the last line suggests, these residents (I can’t helping assuming that they are Canada Geese) have been left “hungry” by our northern land and are heading for warmer climes, taking advantage of a freedom denied to the people huddled around the meagre fires in their frost-choked cabins on the snowswept prairies below (I’m extrapolating a bit there).

A cruel irony lies at the heart of the poem: the immigrants left their homeland hoping for a better life in Canada, but they arrive only to find that even the geese (the Canada Geese, no less!) can’t stand the winter and are heading south at the first opportunity.

And what of the title? Professor Marken has some intriguing remarks:

…”Canadian Pacific,” which is the name of one of our transcontinental robber-baron railroads.  But, in the minds of those who might have no knowledge of Canadian railroading, “Canadian Pacific” might just as likely refer to the far western coastline of our country, not to mention the hardly-disguised and crucial implication that Canada herself – in this view of her – is seen as “pacific,” a place of peace.*

The idea of pacifism is particularly suggestive, perhaps setting us in contrast to our more martial neighbours to the south, and continuing what Professor Marken sees as a general idealizing trend in treatments of Canada in Irish poetry.

For Canadian readers, the obvious reference to the Canadian Pacific Railway remains. Of course, the Canadian Pacific Railway runs from east to west, not north to south – but still, the idea of movement is central to the poem: the people move ever westward, the geese fly south, all restlessly searching for something that can satisfy the hunger they feel.

And now, a poem that offers a different view of Canada:

April on Toronto Island

Once more to the island after the spring thaw –
A qualified silence, old snow under the
Boardwalks, for the winter dies hard.

The winter dies hard, and a last wintry reluctance
Clutches the splintered birches. There is
Nothing among the boarded-up houses,

Nothing along the lakeshore but bird-bones and fish-bones
Greasy with diesel oil, and the clapboard
Church of Saint Andrew-by-the-Lake.

There is not even a bird, although there are bird noises
And the growl of commerce, muted by empty
Distance, where the downtown skyline

Stands out like the first draft of a new civilization.
But the slick water mourns for its vanished
Ice like a lost child for its mother.

Another ferry pulls away from the landing-stage,
The lighthouse blows its now redundant
Fog-warning over the rocks and

Slowly, in ones and twos, the people are coming back
To stand on the thin beach among the
Washed-up flotsam of the winter,

Watching the long grainers move down to the seaway.
Their faces dream of other islands,
Clear cliffs and salt water,

Fields brighter than paradise in the first week of creation –
Grace caught in a wind or a tide, our
Lives in infinite preparation.   (30)

In the course of a few pages of Night-Crossing, we have apparently endured the winter that was just beginning in “Canadian Pacific” and moved into what passes for spring – a spring strongly marked, in the first few lines, by the lingering traces of winter.

We have also traded a rural setting (that would be my interpretation, at least) for an urban one, or perhaps near-urban; one of the fascinating elements of the poem is the way it portrays Toronto Island as a sanctuary of the wilderness that persists in close proximity to a growing city (note my deft avoidance of the word “liminal”). And so we have the “splintered birches” and the “bird noises,” but also the “growl of commerce,” though that is, for now, “muted by empty / Distance.” And we have the repetition of the word “nothing” in the description of the island, as though suggesting that it remains outside the influence of urbanizing humanity (except for that church). The point of view of the poem seems to be that of people returning to the island for the first time after the winter and looking uneasily back at the growing city across the water and the changes it is bringing about in the landscape and the environment. Those on the island are beginning to notice the effects of these changes: it is their shore where the “bird-bones and fish-bones / Greasy with diesel oil” wash up with the rest of the “flotsam of the winter,” it is their field of vision that is invaded by the “grainers” that “move down to the seaway.”

Toronto, here, is not the typically clean, sterile Canadian city we have seen elsewhere; instead, it seems almost threatening, as the poem presents the side effects of its “progress.” One of the most striking and revealing images in the poem is of Toronto as a city,

…where the downtown skyline

Stands out like the first draft of a new civilization.

In that single line I count three words associated with the idea of “newness”: “first,” “draft” (I suppose they really form one syntactical unit) and the word “new” itself. The idea of a new civilization has promise, but “first draft” makes it all sound rather haphazard and provisional, as if there is no real plan behind the development that is occurring. The islanders seem to be wondering whether the people and organizations who are building the city have any idea what they’re doing, or what effect they’re having on their surroundings.

This presents us with a more “modern” view of Canada than we are accustomed to: our country may once have been an unspoiled wilderness, but human action is quickly changing that.

The final three stanzas turn to dreams of escape, and recall the image of the geese flying south at the end of “Canadian Pacific,” though again the people don’t have the same freedom: they stand on the beach, dreaming of other, more beautiful sea-coasts (an idealized memory of the homes they have left? Or some new, imagined paradise?) not threatened by urban encroachment and free of the washed-up winter flotsam that pollutes Toronto. Their dreams are, in fact, of an unspoiled wilderness of the sort that the city is now beginning to threaten. 

And yet again there is an irony here, because isn’t that dream of “fields brighter than paradise in the first week of creation” exactly what the immigrants of “Canadian Pacific” found in the “rough stones of heaven beyond the western ocean” – and didn’t it leave them as dissatisfied as the geese flying south? The two poems about Canada are an ambivalent commentary on the basic human feelings of desire and disappointment, elegantly captured in the final line of “April on Toronto Island.” They also form a dyad within the larger collection, commenting on and referring to one another, and raising questions about what exactly our country is: land of opportunity? Unspoiled wilderness? Polluted industrial horror? Some combination of all three?

As a writer, Mahon doesn’t present a simple view of Canada – he doesn’t see it as “one thing,” as writers often do when they make passing references to it. Rather, he sees the complexity of a country moving from the rural into the modern, urban age.

Digression: On the Education of Poets

The following is not a quote from Mahon, but from the back cover blurb of Night-Crossing:

After graduating he spent two years in Canada and America, working as, successively, a university lecturer, Xerox operator, warehouseman, bookstore assistant, and English teacher.

I think there are two main species of poet biographies that appear on book jackets; the first, and probably more common now, is the Curriculum Vitae style, which rattles off MFA programs, workshop residencies, and publications in obscure journals. By contrast, the second seeks to prove that although the author may be a poet, (s)he is no “mouse of the scrolls” ( to borrow Pound’s phrase), but has lived and worked in the “real world”; in these bios, references to things like factory work, adventure tour guiding, retail, a stint in advertising or as a prison guard, are de rigeur – in short, the more something sounds unlike what a stereotypical poet would do, the more prominent it is in the bio. Mahon’s bio clearly fits into the latter category – it practically screams, “Look at all the adventurous, un-poet-like stuff this guy has done. He can operate a Xerox machine! (How quaint that sounds now.) He even worked in a warehouse! Not your typical poet, this.” And here, too, Canada, plays its role, providing a hint of the exotic, and perhaps (to a reader in the U.K. in 1968) a suggestion of toughness as well, as if no shrinking-violet poet could have survived and thrived in the wilderness of Canada, as Mahon clearly has.

 *From The Internationalism of Irish Literature and Drama, ed. Joseph McMinn. Irish Literary Studies 41, Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross, 1992, pp. 193-208. Originally presented as a Plenary at the Seventh Triennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literature, University of Ulster, Coleraine. 1988.


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