Fort Smith, in the Northwest Territories, and its fictional counterpart Fort Simmer, familiar to readers of Richard Van Camp, form the backdrop for the Dogrib First Nation author’s latest short-story collection. This group of 11 electrifying and sometimes horrifying tales – several revisiting characters from Van Camp’s previous books – teems with violence, shame, desire for revenge, sexuality, the supernatural, and hard-won second chances.
Not a writer prone to gradually easing his readers into his fictional world, Van Camp opens his collection with “Bornagirl,” an explosive story of the abuse and torture of Brian, a transsexual high school student. Brian suffers unspeakable treatment at the hands of Kevin, one of Van Camp’s recurring characters. It becomes clear by the end of the story that the hatred Kevin feels for Brian and the compulsion to beat out of him an answer to his furious question – “Why the fuck are you like this?” – springs from his struggles with his own sexuality and his attraction to Brian.
In the otherwordly “I Double Dogrib Dare You,” Grant, another of Van Camp’s regulars, finds himself at a reunion in deep conversation with Valentina, a mysterious, timeless “half spirit.” When a group of toughs threaten to break Grant’s legs over a legal matter, Valentina becomes his protector, telling him to leave and not look back: “And I didn’t look back when I thought I heard the screaming, the whimpering, the begging. As I hit the four-way, I ran all the way home.”
Most of the primary characters in Night Moves are young men. Many of them – like brothers Torchy and Sfen – who appear in several stories, live on the edge of calamity, conditioned by anger and abusive backgrounds to adopt a “violence cures violence” attitude. But Van Camp’s stories are not without moments of hope, and it is these moments that save the collection from sliding into despair. One such moment occurs when the giant, Flinch, in “Because of What I Did” is inspired to turn his back on a life of shame and destruction in favour of the “holy and useful” existence his mother wants for him.
The intervention of family and community sometimes helps Van Camp’s young, misguided characters change their direction. In “Blood Rides the Wind,” the strongest of the stories, the teenaged Bear comes to Fort Simmer on a mission for revenge against a school principal who has molested his disabled cousin, Wendy. Bear’s uncle Stanley manages to convince his nephew of options, such as graduating high school, that do not involve retribution and bloodshed. Bear is released from his anger and set on a more constructive path: “I looked up at the stars. They were now waking from their great vanishing. I had a mission. I had a new contract. … I’d return honour to myself and my family. I had to.”
A book to be absorbed slowly and deliberately, one story at a time, Night Moves is a dark and diverse collection with unforgettable characters, deep wisdom, and painful truths.