The release of a new Richard Wagamese novel is a cause for celebration. His work is always spellbinding, comprising powerful stories that get to the heart of Canada – funny, sad, sometimes disturbing and weighty, but always human, no matter the circumstances. When you read a Wagamese novel, there are times you forget that you are reading a book and instead feel as though you have become a witness to the lives of his characters. Wagamese was not just one of the finest Indigenous novelists this country has produced, he was one of this country’s finest writers, period.
But the publication of his newest novel, Starlight, is bittersweet. On March 10, 2017, Richard Wagamese passed away at 61; Starlight was the novel he was working on at the time. It remains incomplete, but the lack of an ending doesn’t deter from the quality of the book. It’s a joy to read, with classic Wagamese moments of connections to the land and between characters.
The novel tells the story of Frank Starlight, an Indigenous rancher and photographer living a simple life in northern B.C. Starlight’s days are filled with repairing fences, digging septic tanks, and raising horses with his best friend, the farmhand Eugene Roth. At times, Starlight heads into the bush, connecting with nature and photographing wildlife. He is something of a reluctant celebrity, because his photographs are attracting international acclaim, but life on the ranch is simple, almost idyllic.
During one of his rare trips into town, Starlight helps a woman and her daughter after they’re accused of shoplifting. Emmy and six-year-old Winnie are on the run in a stolen truck with little money at their disposal. They’re also being hunted by Emmy’s abusive former boyfriend, Cadotte, and his sidekick, Anderson, both violent drunkards. Wagamese’s descriptions of violence can be disturbing, but the scenes ring true.
To prevent Emmy from losing her daughter to child services, Starlight offers her a place in his home and work as live-in housekeeper, at least until they get back on their feet. That changes the dynamic of the farm. The lives of Starlight and Roth may have seemed idyllic, but the insertion of a mother and her six-year-old brings the realization that they suffered a lack of human connection, an emptiness they didn’t realize existed. In Wagamese’s subtle hands, the growing love between Starlight and Emmy – and the creation of a new family – seems natural, not overplayed for cheap emotion and drama. Juxtaposed with that love is the imminent arrival of Cadotte and Anderson, who have criss-crossed western Canada searching for the runaways, leaving a trail of violence and rage in their wake.
Because it’s unfinished, Starlight ends abruptly. There’s a denouement of sorts so readers aren’t left entirely hanging. However, some of the description in the book stretches a bit too long and the novel could have benefited from the back and forth between author and editor, a process that improves almost every book, but that was never allowed to occur in this case.
Despite its raw state, Starlight is a fine novel. It’s a story about the growth of an unconventional family, and about love and acceptance, not just between people but of oneself. One hopes that Richard Wagamese, who did struggle with demons, found that love and acceptance for himself before he left us. The fact that he will no longer write another book is a sad moment in Canadian literature.