Archive for the ‘Buell, John’ Category

Playground by John Buell ~ 1976. This edition: Ballantine, 1977. Paperback. ISBN: 0-345-25616-6-175. 185 pages.

Well, well. What have we here? Could it be a version of that standard Canadian theme-novel, the Man-Against-Wilderness saga?

Yes, indeed. And it’s a grand specimen of its kind.

Spencer (Spence) Morison, middle-aged professional man, exact occupation unspecified, is well-off, well-organized, fighting fit physically but emotionally more than ready for his meticulously well-planned two weeks holiday in the bush, exploring a bit, fishing a lot, and drinking good booze with three like-minded friends.

Spence leaves a day early, as the plan is that he will fly in a rented plan to the remote lake that the four have planned to base themselves at. He’s a qualified pilot, though that is not his official trade, and like everything else he undertakes he’s darned competent at flying, so a leisurely solo flight is not something he worries about.

Spence provides his flight plan, everything is loaded up, and off he goes. He’s got some time to spare, and it is a holiday, so he then does something which will prove to have serious implications. He detours to check out what the country farther north looks like. Over a hundred miles off his flight path, Spence runs into bad weather and takes his plane down on a large lake. Unfortunately he lands on a submerged shoal of rocks, holes his floats, and the plane goes down. Spence finds himself in the water a mile or more from shore. The struggle is on.

Heartbeat by heartbeat John Buell walks us along with his protagonist as he thinks his way through situation after situation: not drowning, getting to shore, taking stock of his very few assets, figuring out how to light a fire, making a shelter, finding food, locating himself in his surroundings and formulating a plan to head southwards, as it becomes apparent several days in that any search planes out there are not reaching his location.

Spence is a fascinating character. He is by nature so very, very sure of himself, but he realizes almost immediately that he is astoundingly out of his element. He is so well-organized in daily life, every contingency planned for, that he is thrown off kilter by having to truly think on his feet, and herein lies the true interest to me in this otherwise stereotypical Canlit tale, as Spence comes to terms with what he doesn’t know, and muddles through regardless.

He wondered what kind of evergreen it was, not pine, not balsam, not fir, they’re supposed to be big, there’s spruce and cedar and hemlock, only words for him, he knew the shape of his tree, the sprays and flattened leaves, and he’d recognize it. That and the plant with the little yellow flowers. For all his outdoorsman sports he didn’t know much about these things, there was always someone around to say that’s a such-and-such tree and the Indians made a medicinal tea from that plant, and it didn’t really matter, it was interesting and it sounded like a tour, nature had become a museum. And a playground. That’s what brought me out here. I’ll have to find out what those things are. I wonder who told the Indians. And how did they ever manage to boil tea?

Spence isn’t very good at living off the land. In the three weeks of his ordeal, he catches one fish and a handful of minnows, and clubs one small porcupine to death. The rest of the time he eats leaves of some unidentified species of plant – dandelionish but taller and more fleshy. He wishes he’d paid more attention to all the nature hints his previous fishing guides dropped in conversation, but he never really thought he’d need to, so that information was never retained in his well-organized brain.

As week three progresses, Spence gets weaker and weaker. He starts to hallucinate. He comes to terms with the idea of death, so foreign to him at this time in his life. He’d always assumed he had decades more to go. And at last he can’t get up any more. It’s all over.

Serendipity intervenes, which I was exceedingly happy about – as is Spence, obviously – because I had become quite attached to him and found myself utterly invested in his solitary goal of continuing to live.

The best thing about John Buell’s Playground is how it isn’t about a dramatic, hostile, violent life-and-death struggle of man against nature. Ignore all that crap on the cover blurbs. None of that happens.

The true and sobering kernel of truth which comes through loud and clear is that nature is utterly indifferent to the individual. It just is. It’s not out to hinder or to help. The individual is in charge of how he/she/it interacts with what is around, and sometimes the luck is on your side and sometimes it isn’t. This is essentially a non-dramatic drama. There are no struggles with predators or derring deeds done. Just a single human being, plucked out of his physical and psychological element, and doing the best he can with the resources at hand.

Great stuff.

My rating: 10/10





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