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The Friends of Meager Fortune

by David Adams Richards

Though the last 25 years have seen enough social, economic, technological, and even ecological change to keep a small army of novelists busy, historical fiction has become almost a default setting for Canada’s best writers, new and established. For the most part, this makes for novels that read like timid retreats from the ambiguities and uncertainties of contemporary life.

David Adams Richards, whose recent novels are largely rooted in pre-1960s rural New Brunswick, offers a rare example of a novelist who selectively uses historical settings to explore archetypal human dilemmas and to comment on just how much things have changed since the first half of the 20th century. His latest novel, The Friends of Meager Fortune, follows the downward spiral of the Jamesons, who own one of the last family-operated mills in the last days before the mechanization and corporatization of the forest industry destroyed a centuries-old way of life.

Like Richards’ two most recent novels (Mercy Among the Children and River of the Brokenhearted), Meager Fortune celebrates a type of heroic individuality largely at odds with the ironic, humanist sensibilities of our times. Richards writes of a world where moral choices and emotional loyalties were acted out against a backdrop of deeply etched ethnic, religious, and class divisions, and where crossing those lines often brought ridicule, exile, and even death. Richards is unsparing in demonstrating just how brutal, petty, and pointless life in “simpler” times could be, especially for the troubled individual whose conscience saw through the certainties of inherited wisdom.

The novel gets off to a rough start, with a rambling introductory section that telegraphs too many of the novel’s themes and future events. But when the narrative settles into the story of Owen Jameson, the bookish younger brother who slowly and somewhat unwillingly assumes his place as the head of the family, the reader is quickly pulled into a complex world of logging camps and smalltown prejudice.

It soon becomes clear that the novel’s unnamed narrator is neither omniscient nor a passive observer of these events (as in many of the great 19th-century novelists Richards echoes throughout), but a man whose own life’s meager fortune has been determined by the unfolding events. The narrator makes no bones about whose side he’s on, and often takes the meddling townies and gossips to task for failing to recognize the greatness of Owen and the brave men working for him up on Good Friday Mountain, site of one of the last great timber cuts in the province.

The problem here is that, as in many of Richards’ novels, the narrator’s indictments are too often and too easily confirmed by the deplorable actions of these characters. Teachers really are bitter fussbudgets who try to thwart their brightest students, lawyers are scheming sophists, and union supporters are lazy men looking for an easy ride. At times it seems that Richards is painting his characters with two different brushes – one fine and subtle for the men in the camp and the cast-out women, the other a clumpy horsehair brush for the meddlers back in town.

There are some unique and remarkable scenes in Meager Fortune, especially those that take place in the workers’ camp on Good Friday Mountain, where the reader feels every drop in temperature, every bruised and aching muscle. The real accomplishment here is that, unlike so many Canadian historical novels, these scenes never feel like the literary equivalent of a Heritage Minute, largely because Richards conveys this alien world through realistic dialogue and the evocation of physical sensation as much as through description and action.

As in all of Richards’ work, the novel is shot through with black humour, startling imagery, and keen observation. And no writer in Canada, with the exception of Alice Munro, is better at capturing the constantly shifting human dialectic of intention and action, conscience and pride, and the ongoing wars between the public and private self.

Richards also has plenty to say about the Canada of the early 21st century. In one of the novel’s final scenes, the narrator looks out from his crumbling house and sees a new generation of boys playing on the ruins of the old Jameson mill. The passage is harsh and beautiful at the same time: “They teeter and move like princes in the wind, their shirts behind them, and maneuver across the cold railings in this desolate broken lot, thirty feet above the ground. They are the out-of-work children of out-of-work fathers whose grandfathers worked in the long ago…. And they move like their forefathers before them, as if in their primitive hearts a fortune was at stake.”