I love the idea of the North. I have always wanted to go camping in the North. I imagine what the air would feel like in the North. Perhaps that is why I fell in love with the film adaptation of Farley Mowat’s short story “The Snow Walker.” This idea of space, of endlessness, of quiet, of timelessness. Something about the North intrigues all Canadians and the idea of bleak and hauntingly open spaces calls to those who live below the tree line.
I have read a few of Elizabeth Hay’s novels. Her style is interesting and I can never decide if I love it or if I am frustrated by it: she adds so many specific details to her novels. When I was reading Alone in the Classroom I wrote down this line, “Certain things we keep to ourselves for a long time. (Others we spill, as if our minds are brimming bowls that slop over from time to time.)” (Chapter 13).
Hay is a master at creating space, so it is fitting that she was able to capture the scene and scope of space found in the North. In her novel Late Nights on Air, Hay captures that Canadian longing for space and the idea of the landscape being timeless. She writes in the novel about the idea of Irish thin spaces and applies this concept to Canada’s North.
I enjoyed this book. That longing for space and the idea of finding intimacy in nature intrigued me. I think that Hay must keep a book of observations and details, and then when she writes, breaks out her notebook and applies those little life observations, details most of us would miss, to her characters and to her setting. What I found interesting was the way her characters resembled the landscape: Hay allows the reader to glance at the characters as one glances at scenery, and then focuses in on something specific, like one would when looking at a flower or a bird through binoculars.
One of the ideas I liked most in Hay’s novel is her play with time and space. Near the end of the novel, the character Gwen connects to Psalm 90 during a funeral: “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations . . . Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world” (pg 325). This idea that Gwen understands time and space by thinking of the spiritual dwelling place as being timeless space helps her to understand her draw and love for the North. This floating or weightless feeling lends itself well to the experiences of the North, where anything left behind is preserved for decades. It also connects to the Irish/Old World idea of thin spaces. The connection to the land and the idea of timelessness is one of the driving themes in the novel. In fact, Hay includes the Mackenzie Pipeline Inquiry hearings conducted by Justice Thomas Berger between 1974 and 1977. Because of Berger’s awareness of the fragile connection to the land in the North, he rules that the Natives should be the ones to make the decision about their land, mostly I think because it is impossible to understand the landscape and the thin spaces in the North unless you experience them for yourself.
At the end of the novel, Gwen, who starts her radio career in the North, decides to leave radio because of the air; she was tired of “cram[ming] it to the gills with talk, to bury it under endless information” (351). Gwen’s late nights on air are over and I can picture her instead lingering in the quiet dwelling place of memories of the North: “she went north in her mind, into the summer air, down the road to Lantham Island and out onto the pre-dawn waters . . . and she felt held . . . and taken under the wing of that faraway place” (364). After reading this novel, my desire to go to the North has been renewed. I want to experience for myself the connection between land and time and enter into those thin spaces.