Of the Atom
Peter C. van Wyck
(McGill-Queen's University Press)The Dene tribe of Canada had the singular misfortune of sitting atop a fortune. Next to Great Bear Lake in the North-West Territories there was (and presumably still is) a large outcrop of pitchblende.
Pitchblende is the mother of radium, what author van Wyck identifies as "the most valuable commodity on earth" (during his narrative, the price topped out at $25,000/gram). It is also the half-brother of uranium.
The Dene, being a sensible folk, were not interested in building bombs to flay innocent citizens, so the pitchblende was ignored; indeed, they stayed away from it. According to a report in Macleans magazine, it was to be avoided mostly because it smelled bad: "Indians of the area traditionally insisted that there was a peculiar smell to the atmosphere at LaBine Point."
Naturally, "this caused some merriment especially since our white man could not spot the alleged scent at all," reported Macleans.
The Déline had another problem with LaBine Point: "They believed it was bad medicine to pass in front of this rock: it was said that loud noises came from within it." A medicine man reported having a vision of white people going there to make a hole in the ground, with boats going back and forth on Great Bear Lake, then making something long "like a stick."
I saw what harm it would do with the big bird dropped this thing on people --- they all died from this long stick, which burned everyone. The people they dropped this long thing on looked like us, like Dene ... but it isn't for now; it's a long time in the future. It will come after we are all dead.
This vision came from an elder of the Dene, Ehtseo Ayah, who died in 1940.
§ § §
The Highway of the Atom isn't your typical tale of wise primitives coming in contact with greedy white folk ... although there are elements of that. It is not even primarily a discourse on radioactivity and an indigenous community now suffering with far more bodily ills as a result of that greed. Better, it is an exploration of responsibility ... such as, for example, who among us who is responsible for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It also treats the art of telling a story (there is a fine story here) and the place of accidents and the hazards of chance in our world. Also, there are elements of history: how history does (and doesn't) work; how to rewrite the past; what is to be done with leakage (of water; of cold; of radioactive materials).
There is the proper place of North in the mythology of those of us who live to the south; too, there is imagination, and the place of tales in the life of the Dene ... indeed, in all our lives.
There is Freud's notion: that the whole of mankind is potty. And, if the world is mad, what can we use as a bellwether to measure this madness? If we live in a world full of nut-cases, who is to define sanity? It is similar, says the writer, to the concept of "body count:" who is to do the counting?
Then there is the matter of "archival absence" --- especially in reference to bombs and governments and innocent citizens (of the U.S., of Canada, of the world) exposed to bombs without their specific knowledge, anticipation, and permission.
Finally, in the passage of people and certain resources, we must ask how one seeks (and later reinvents) a path, the way, a highway. How do you reconstruct such a way long after people think ... they may be wrong, especially with regards to radioactive material ... that the path has ceased to exist.
There are several long disquisitions here on deconstructionism and Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. Most of these went way over my head. But that's OK, I've always been a half-assed deconstructionist myself since I was a kid, when I learned to take apart watches and cars and never figured how to put them back together.
In (or on) The Highway of the Atom, these matters are relatively unimportant, because the book itself is a glorious, a glorious work of art. Here I was expecting the usual screed about how the honkies ripped off the natives who then got radiation sickness and died because they weren't informed, even though clinical cases of the dangers of radiation were well-documented more than three-quarters of a century ago (mostly in the case of the "Radium Girls," those who made a living painting the dials of watches, moistening the tips of their paint brushes with their tongues ... and then, subsequently, dying of acute radiation sickness.)
That's all included here, but there is so much more because van Wyck is one of those historians who keeps going off the well-worn path to ask himself (and the reader) about, for instance, the unconscious ("the dysfunctional entity par excellence"), or telling us how he, as an demi-historian, tried to get the surviving members of the Dene to tell the story of what befell them, but "it is clear to me that an adequate account of the function of story for the Dene is far beyond my abilities to present there, or anywhere." Or anywhere. What historian ... William Shirer, William White, Arthur Schlesinger ... would throw in an aside like that?
Then listen to van Wyck's story (another great story) about fishing the NWT ... not unlike fishing stories I have heard in other settings, other times: "Fishing in Great Bear Lake is an embarrassment. And exhausting. One must work very hard to catch fish small enough to eat. This of course cannot be repeated elsewhere --- apocryphal it sounds. But it isn't."
I have apologized to a lot of fish in the last few days, as I send them back into the deep. All too big, by any reasonable standard. What do we need 16 pounds of meat for? This evening, fishing for dinner. One hour, everything too big. Sorry. A caribou and her calf are surprised to see me apologizing to (another) fish and divert their path from the beach where I am standing, to the lake.
And so we must ask: Where did this one come from? The Highway of the Atom comes in the mail as a complete surprise. I'm opening yet another review copy and I am overwhelmed by, for example, the willingness of van Wyck to detour from the way at any juncture whatsoever to explore yet another question about writing, and history, and stories; about Port Hope ... The Town that Radiates Friendliness! ... and his own involvement that came from seeing a video documentary,
In 1998, on the anniversary of the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Dene did something exemplary, unthinkable: they organized a formal expedition to Japan to apologize to the Japanese and the Korean hibakusha (bomb survivors) for the Dene role, their complicity (unknowing as it was), and foremost, the complicity of their land ... a territorial archive that was now indelibly stained with the record of their collusion.
This video, by Peter Blow --- the Village of Widows showed how
the Dene find themselves in a hospital for Korean hibakusha. Much like the Dene experience in Canada, the story of the Korean laborers in Japan (some 40,000 died in the detonations or aftermath of the atom bombs) is absent from the official histories of the time.
A story unfinished. Like many stories told in this volume --- stories of the Dene, for example, that aren't stories, ones that just goes on, wandering about, from here, over to the next hill, across the lake, somewhere to the south, maybe to Toronto, maybe to Winnepeg, maybe to Medicine Hat, or to Hiroshima ... where the story just blows up.
But this is the point: the stories themselves are not all that important after all. They are just us making up people who, perhaps, have just made us up as well; people who may be telling stories, or what we think of as stories, but, in the end, people who learn that they cannot tell the difference between the story, and the story-teller ... or, most of all, the listener.
--- Lolita Lark