In her first novel, poet Meredith Quartermain tackles the difficult subject of Canada’s treatment of its native population. Set in the 1930s, Rupert’s Land examines the lives of two young adults: Cora, a white girl in the small town of Stettler, Alberta, and Hunter, a native boy living in poverty on a nearby reserve.
The book is divided into sections focusing on Cora, Hunter, and the two characters together. Cora’s section reads like a typical young adult novel: she chafes against traditional female roles, learns about love and sex, and daydreams about running away to join the Indians. Hunter’s narrative is more interesting. Born and raised on the reserve, he knows about his culture only through stories. His life is dictated by government cruelty; sent to a residential school, Hunter experiences the kind of suffering all too familiar to native Canadians.
After running away from school, Hunter ends up in Stettler and meets Cora, who decides to help him return to his family. Cora’s fantasies about Indians are dashed when she finds out that Hunter knows very little about the exotic lifestyle she has read about; she realizes that “maybe Indians like that only live in books.”
Quartermain’s background in poetry is evident in the novel’s lyricism. The imagery is vivid, especially where Hunter is concerned. The young man is capable of detecting nature metaphors all around him – even in the residential school. However, the novel’s reliance on interior monologue makes it difficult to follow the action, and leads to confusion over who is speaking in scenes featuring groups or flashbacks.
The contrast between Cora’s romanticized notion of natives and the reality of life on the reserve and in the residential school is an interesting way of exploring the novel’s milieu. If you can ignore the difficulties presented by the characters’ frequent stream-of-consciousness monologues, the picture Quartermain paints will stay with you for some time.