Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Land use and land use rights have been a source of contention for a long time. This issue has come up quite a lot in recent decades as indigenous people have asserted their rights to land they regard as theirs. To get a sense of how this sort of conflict plays out, let’s turn today’s spotlight on R.J. Harlick’s Death’s Golden Whisper, the first of her Meg Harris novels.
Meg has recently left an abusive relationship, and is now living at Three Deer Point in Outaouais, in Western Québec. She inherited the property from her Great-Aunt Agatha, who had always enjoyed a good relationship with the Migiskan people living in the area. Since she’s arrived, Meg, too, has tried to build a good rapport with them and has largely succeeded.
That’s why Miskigan Band Chief Eric Odjik trusts her enough to ask for her help. There is a good chance that there may be gold on Whisper Island, which lies very near Three Deer Point. A company called CanacGold wants to mine the island to see if that’s true. Many of the Miskigan don’t want the company on their land. Some are afraid of the damage to the local ecology and their livelihoods. Others don’t want it because they don’t want CanacGold to profit from gold that by rights belongs to the Miskigan. But the company is both motivated and well-funded. So as Eric sees it, the best way to prevent the company from moving in is to show that the land is owned by someone. And he thinks that someone may be Meg, since Whisper Island may be a part of her Great-Aunt Agatha’s property.
Meg is happy to help Eric, since she doesn’t want CanacGold taking over the island, either. So one plot thread of this novel concerns her search for any evidence that Aunt Agatha owned the island. If so, then it’s Meg’s property. As she does so, Meg learns that her aunt had some surprising and deeply-hidden dark secrets.
In another plot thread, the possibility of gold on the island divides the Miskigans. Not all of the group is opposed to CanacGold. In fact, there’s quite a vocal group, led by Charlie Cardinal, that supports the company. This group believes that CanacGold will provide jobs for the Miskigan. What’s more, development in the area will mean a boost to tourism and the local economy.
The debate is going on when Meg’s friend and employee Marie Whiteduck goes missing. The last anyone knew, she was planning to go to her husband Louis’ hunting camp. That in itself is serious enough; Louis is an abusive alcoholic, so Marie could be in danger. But matters get more serious when Louis is found dead. It’s quite possible that Marie killed him, and no-one who knows her would blame her. But until she’s found, she can’t tell her story. And as time goes by, it’s more and more likely that something terrible happened to her.
Now faced with two mysteries, Meg also finds that as she gets closer to the truth, there are people who do not want her to find the answers. In the end, and with help from Eric, she learns the truth about Louis’ death. She also discovers how that is related to the dispute over Whisper Island, and to her aunt’s past.
One important element in this novel is what happens when land ownership is contested. Many people think that ownership is well-documented, so that there shouldn’t be a lot of question over who owns what. However, that’s not always the case, especially for people who don’t have a Western or Western-influenced concept of land ownership. When there are no official records, there isn’t always an easy way to know who has land rights, and this novel explores that question.
Along with this is the element of the impact on everyone when land turns out to be extremely valuable (e.g. when precious metals or fossil fuels are found on the land). It’s hard to look away from an awful lot of money. At the same time, it’s hard to ignore the consequences of drilling/mining/developing. As the debate among the Miskigan goes on, we see the various perspectives on land use. In this particular case, the ‘good guys’ are on the side of those who don’t want CanacGold on their land. That said though, Harlick addresses both sides of this issue.
And the land in this instance is appealing. The story takes place in the rural part of Western Québec, just as autumn is closing in; and it’s easy to see why many of the people who live there love the land just as it is. It’s not only physically beautiful, but it’s also peaceful and relatively unpopulated. Readers who enjoy being out in nature will appreciate Harlick’s descriptions of the area.
Another element in this novel is, as I mentioned, Meg’s search for the truth about her great-aunt. She’s living in the house that Aunt Agatha owned, so there are a lot of her aunt’s things there. In fact, there’s one room that’s always been off-limits to everyone. When Meg enters that room and starts going through her aunt’s trunks and other things, we get an unfolding picture of Aunt Agatha’s life and the secrets she kept. And as it turns out, these secrets are connected to the present-day events. We also learn a bit about life just before World War I. Readers who dislike multiple timelines will be pleased to know that the story isn’t told in that way. Rather, we learn about that past history through letters and other things that Meg finds.
We also learn something about Meg’s character, since the story is told in first person from her point of view. She is still healing from her disastrous marriage, and she drinks more than she should. Matters aren’t helped when her ex-husband contacts her, saying that he wants to be in her life again. In her reactions to him and to her marriage, we see the lasting effects of abuse. That said though, readers who do not like self-absorbed characters who wallow in their sorrow and can’t function will be pleased to know that Meg’s not like that. It’s probably far more accurate to say she’s beginning a long journey back to mental health. She stumbles on the way, but you can’t really call her hopelessly dysfunctional.
The solution to the mystery ties all of the plot elements together. By no means is everything all right again, but we do learn the answers to the main questions. And it’s clear that life will go on.
Death’s Golden Whisper is the story of what happens to a relatively peaceful, rural community when greed rears its head. It features a beautiful setting and a protagonist who is starting to heal as she grows into that setting. But what’s your view? Have you read Death’s Golden Whisper? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 5 October/Tuesday 6 October – Havana Red – Leonardo Padura
Monday 12 October/Tuesday 13 October – Crossbones Yard – Kate Rhodes
Monday 19 October/Tuesday 20 October – Double Indemnity – James M. Cain