South of an Unnamed Creek by Anne Cameron ~ 1989. This edition: Harbour Publishing, 1989. Hardcover. ISBN: 1-55017-013-9. 199 pages.
My rating: 4/10
Six (actually seven, plus a girl child) downtrodden women are brought together by circumstance and end up as business partners (and more! much more!) during the 1890s’ Klondike Gold Rush.
Sounds like a promising storyline, doesn’t it? I thought so, and opened the book all ready-prepped to enjoy – well-known B.C. writer, strong female leads, historical setting – what could be better? I happily thought.
Anne Cameron, B.C.’s rather fascinating angry-feminist-lesbian kidlit/adult novel writer, in South of an Unnamed Creek combines period drama with a liberal helping of revenge fantasy, placing her characters deep in the mire before providing them with opportunities for turning the tables on their oppressors, and the heck with plausibility. I have to say that the parts that put me off the most were not necessarily the abundant incidents of rape and physical abuse, but the utter unlikeliness of the revenge bits, which are set out by Cameron with salacious glee.
It reads to me as if the author let her opinions get in the way of her craftsmanship.
The following post is loaded with plot spoilers. Stop here if you don’t want to know. Also if you can’t handle rape scenes, conventional and otherwise.
So here’s what I came away with.
- All women are born victims.
- All men are natural oppressors of women.
- And “respectable” white men are the worst.
- All First Nations people are wonderfully spiritual and secretly heroic. (But especially the women. Who are universally victimized by society as well as by the male members of their families/communities.)
- Ditto people of “Celestial” origin. (Cameron’s code word for Chinese.) (And especially the women. Ditto the natural victim thing.)
- But once the female victim is pushed too far – the rape thing, in most cases – superhuman strength and cunning is magically granted, and the oppressors are chopped down (sometimes literally) at the peak of their oppressive prime.
- And revenge feels good.
- And men are overrated as bed partners, anyway.
Yes, dear readers, the brushes in this uneven saga are very broad indeed, and dripping with non-nuanced primary colours.
Main characters and the long, complicated setup:
- Ceileigh is an expatriate Scottish fiddle player who has ended up in some unnamed Canadian settlement, plying her musical trade and saving her bits of copper for passage to who-knows-where. She’s followed home from a New Year’s Eve gig and brutally raped by two men, but once they are sated, the Celtic priestess element in Ceileigh’s nature awakens, and she beats them both senseless with her violin case, disfiguring at least one of her assaulters for life. She’s now on the run from the rapists and the authorities. And she’s pregnant.
- Aggie is the feral child of drunken parents living on the Fraser River mudflats near (presumably) Vancouver. While still a wee child, Aggie attracts the eye of a pedophilic “Uncle”, but she soon learns how to trade sexual services for various favours, such as a dress and (I’m not kidding) shoes good for tapping. For Aggie is a naturally accomplished dancer, and is soon working the streets as an entertainer, dancing for pennies. She is taken pity on by a noble First Nations woman, adopted into a native village, and initiated into the Salish lifestyle and spirituality. It can’t last. The hapless villagers are soon wiped out en masse by smallpox, and Aggie heads back to her squalid old life and occupation.
- Su Gin is the daughter of poor Chinese farmers. When bandits attack her village and kill almost everybody, she hides in the mud of the rice paddy, surfacing when it’s safe. Her uncle, coming to take over the family holdings, welcomes her warmly, then immediately drugs her and sells her into slavery. Su Gin comes to on a ship headed for the west coast of Canada, fated for a new life as a prostitute. (Being a virgin, her initial price is set high. Cameron uncharacteristically spares us the details of Su Gin’s deflowering.)
- Lily is the child of a rather simple-minded, money-grasping white prostitute somewhere in middle Canada. At a still-tender age Lily is rescued by her great-grandmother, taken off to an affluent life in the city, and civilized and educated. But everyone in the family (except Great-grandmother) despises Lily for her origins and her outspoken ways. When Lily is in her teens, Granny dies, and Lily, knowing her life will change for the worse without Granny’s protection, loads up with cash (left to her in the will, to the anger of the other relatives) and with a string of the best horses in the stable (the family servants are all on Lily’s side) trots off into the wider world, heading west.
- Mary is the loving daughter of a widowed coal miner somewhere on Vancouver Island. Daddy is brusque and occasionally violent, due to his hard life and perpetual state of fatigue and hunger. Mary lucks upon an Indian canoe and soon masters the craft of paddling about and fishing. This is a good thing all round, except presumably for the people now missing their canoe, but we won’t get into that. Daddy when well fed is a much cheerier person to be around, and Mary starts bringing in some extra cash with her fish sales. But things are getting too comfy to be sustained. A mine collapse leaves Mary orphaned, and she is kicked out of the company house. Making her way down the coast, Mary does quite nicely with the fishing trade, but jealous men smash her boat. (“This t’isn’t the occupation for a mere woman. Y’er puttin’ us out of business. Go back to yer sewing.”) Luckily Mary has hidden resources. She takes her savings and heads to the mainland on a ship, but only after cleverly (and fatally) revenging herself on her main oppressor. (Glub, glub.)
- Cora is the eldest daughter of a family of dirt-poor prairie settlers. She loves her patient mother with daughterly affection, but desperately yearns to be a close pal to her stern father, who continually overlooks Cora and favours the boys of the family instead. But Cora has developed a strong skill set, shooting and riding as well (actually, better) than the boys, as well as becoming accomplished in all of the womanly arts. When a wealthy, widowed neighbour-man comes questing for Cora’s hand, her father pushes her to accept. Cora demurs, but the neighbour takes things into his own hands, brutally rapes the teenager, and loads her up into his wagon, with her father’s full approval. Cora, now the physically abused sex-slave of an older man, despairs of her future. When her father is killed in a brothel brawl, Cora’s still-young mother comes to live with her, and it’s not long before Cora’s unofficial husband (they never were properly married) is sampling the sexual delights of Mum as well. So Cora bides her time, organizes her escape plans, and one night packs up a substantial nest egg liberated from her husband’s secret stash, loads up food and a rifle, and rides away with two fine horses, heading west.
Much journeying now occurs, with all of the characters eventually convening in Dawson City or thereabouts. The white characters have bonded together in a business partnership – they set up a hotel/restaurant/trading enterprise catering to the gold miners. They’ve also acquired a male sidekick, a First Nations guide who becomes more than a friend to one of the party. They are joined by Su Gin, who has picked up a random white child in her travels – fellow victim of a brutal train hijacking – as well as another “Celestial” woman, Ling Ying.
Things are going wonderfully well, and the women are coining money hand over fist. Ceileigh’s baby (a girl) is born. Some time (a few years?) goes by. Then – disaster! Mary falls in love with a wicked Englishman, who absconds with the communal hidden stash of gold. Ceileigh’s male partner follows to try to retrieve it, and ends up very dead. Aggie then takes things into her own hands, pulls off a reverse coup in San Francisco, and comes home with the recovered cash, just in time for another crisis, as a gang of slick gamblers blackmail the women into signing over control of their flourishing business. (The reason for the blackmail is the illegal presence of the Chinese women in Canada. Or at least that was the case according to Cameron, though by this point I was no longer relying on her research to be completely accurate in all of its details, as it seemed to me that she was picking and choosing at will from the historical record, context be damned.)
So the women decide to yield to the blackmailers, because things are starting to decline in the business anyway, as the Klondike gold rush is coming to an end.
Off they go with their millions in gold dust, to settle down in kinder climes, some neatly paired off – Su Gin and Aggie, Cora and Lily – and the others apparently just happy to hang out in sisterly companionship.
And the moral of the story is?
Ha. No prizes for figuring that one out.
Anne Cameron. My goodness. I wish she was a little less obvious in her agenda, because there is some interesting story-telling going on here, but I keep bumping up against the more bizarre bits, such as the sudden kung-fu powers of the Celestial prostitutes and the killer dog used in the revenge scenario in San Francisco and – probably most ick-inducing – the rape scene early on involving the use of a Chinese woman’s bound feet as a substitute vagina. (I even did a very little bit of superficial internet research on that last-mentioned scenario, because it sounded too weird to be true, and I’d never come across such an allegation before. My conclusion is that it is mostly imaginative on Cameron’s part. Perhaps?)
Anyway, I tried my darnedest to appreciate the nuances of this character-heavy, over-plotted yet paradoxically over-simplified tale. As you can see by my rating, it didn’t quite convince me to enter into its world.
Anne Cameron is perhaps most well known for her acclaimed and controversial Daughters of Copper Woman, 1981.