In the first flush of hot summer weather, I have a perverse tradition of inaugurating the season by reading a book with an extreme cold-weather setting. Last year it was Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife, which opens in a Wisconsin blizzard. This year, seeing that I had the hot Hawaiian beach to look forward to, I knew just what to pack: Steve Zipp's Yellowknife, which takes place in the Canadian far north.

Actually, it's a bit of an understatement to say that it "takes place" there. Yellowknife is one of those books in which the setting is a character in its own right, perhaps the most vibrant and dynamic character of the lot. The book declares its uniquely Northern viewpoint early in on, when one character informs another that "a lotta people make a big mistake when they come here. They figure the North is just like any other place, only colder. They don't realize things are seriously different...borders exist for a reason." And Yellowknife's essential northernness continues to undergird the plot and structure of the book to an extent I didn't at first realize. In fact, I'm glad I've had a few weeks to think about this novel before writing my review; elements that at first seemed sloppy or confounding have percolated in my brain during the intervening time, and I think I understand better now what Zipp is doing.

Yellowknife begins with a fairly traditional structure: the narrative alternates, chapter by chapter, between field biologist Nora Lobachevski, who works for the Department of Wildlife and specializes in small mammals, and Danny Diamond, an itinerant seeker accustomed to living on the margins:

[W]hen he was canned from an assembly-line job for joyriding on a conveyor belt, and evicted from a boarding house for causing a flood when he fell asleep in the shower, he did not curse his luck. Adversity, he sensed, was a sort of hazard or frontier, the kind that could not be actively sought or courted. It had to arrive of its own accord, like love or a bolt of lightening.

Throughout Part 1, we alternate in an orderly fashion between Nora and Danny, and are introduced to their various conflicts: Nora's power struggles with the ever-evolving government bureaucracy that runs her job, and her mixed feelings about her recent engagement; Danny's process of arriving in and finding his way around Yellowknife, his acclimatization to living at the dump and subsisting on stolen dog food. The reader expects (I, at least, expected) that we would probably continue to follow Nora and Danny throughout the book; their paths would undoubtedly intersect at some point, and they would become somehow instrumental in each others' stories. Instead, there is a sudden break at Part 2, and we are introduced to a whole separate set of characters, only catching sight of Danny or Nora occasionally. As the book progresses more and more characters are introduced, the narrative focus shifting at an ever-increasing pace, until the characters begin to blur before the reader's eyes. As the denoument of this structural progression, the final chapter is not narrated by a human at all, but by a dog.

My first impression of these increasingly rapid-fire character introductions was that Zipp was being sloppy with his narrative; that he hadn't planned well and as a result his second half was overloaded with rushed action. As I've thought it over, though, it seems more a deliberate tactic emphasizing one of the central ecological points in the novel: as much as each of these humans sees him- or herself as the center of a vastly important nexus of events, the drama of one individual person is actually not of much account. Humans, Zipp seems to argue, are a basically clueless, bumbling animal, crashing around self-importantly and messing things up for the rest of our ecosystem. In the North particularly (this novel seems to say), the true center of life does not dwell with humans, but with the plants and animals and land adapted to life in its extremes. Humans believe we are the center of all action, but in reality we only become so when we manage to wreak irreversible damage on our surroundings; otherwise, we're most successful when we accept our role as just one more animal among the throng. By starting with a narrow human focus and widening gradually outward until he has left all individual humans behind, Zipp manages to underscore this point quite cleverly, demonstrating how "the story" needn't depend on humanity at all, much to our chagrin.

Not that Yellowknife comes off as a preachy novel. It's sometimes quite funny (usually situationally funny rather than jokey-funny), and often appealingly atmospheric. One of the things I loved about it is the way in which Zipp conjures a bizarre, surreal atmosphere, without (usually) straying across the line into magical realism. Nothing against magical realism per se, but I think it's often over-used these days; Zipp demonstrates that one can create an unnerving, surreal setting without explicitly magical elements. The town of Yellowknife, for example, is built on top of a honeycomb of now-derelect gold mining tunnels; different characters break through to this network, either on purpose or by accident, and discover that people are living in the tunnels full-time, leftovers from the mining industry who now cater to the large community of semi-homeless, marginal livers in Yellowknife. The intersection of this marginal community and the tourist crowd provides another source of surreality, as Dumptown dwellers seek out acquaintances employed by tourist-trap bars to dress up and act like famous Arctic explorers. The shifting sands of Canadian bureaucracy are yet another source of disorienting surreal moments, as Nora's new boss shunts her ever deeper into the bowels of their office building, upset that she refuses to spearhead a mole study and disregarding her insistence that such a study is impossible, as there are no moles in the North.

There was one pet peeve of mine that Yellowknife did fall prey to...sort of. As we are getting to know Nora, in Part 1 of the book, she is struggling with her feelings about marriage. She's in a relationship with a man whom she loves and who wants to marry her, but she has always been personally and politically opposed to the idea of marrying. After she agrees to marry her partner, who is also a biologist, they get into a semi-silly argument about name-changing; she gets upset that, while he doesn't care if she changes her name or not, he would never consider changing his own. Now, speaking as a woman with my own set of opinions about the oppressive history of marriage-as-institution, I was very impressed to see this kind of discourse dropped into a novel as a casual plot-point. Because in case you haven't noticed, it's pretty unusual for characters to criticize the traditions surrounding marriage in anything short of The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. But then I got nervous, because in a good percentage of books and movies where women DO criticize marriage traditions, they end up seeing the light and being converted by the end, forgetting all their silly female objections as soon as the right man comes along (if, indeed, their objections weren't just a sour-grapes smokescreen to begin with).

This is more or less exactly what happens in Yellowknife. And yet, the book's non-traditional treatment of human drama makes me somehow less annoyed than I usually would be. By the time Nora decides to marry her second suitor (a Mounty with whom she seems seldom to converse), quit her job and raise babies in Toronto, the core of the story has shifted far away from her individual concerns. The romance angle is submerged in the detective angle, which is submerged in the adventure angle, which is all blurred together into something not easily classifiable. So many clich├ęs, so many genres, are suggested and then cast aside, like overly-human flotsam. I was left with the idea, less that women are silly and feminists bitter spinsters, and more that all people are a bit ridiculous and contradictory, and that natural processes work in unpredictable ways—a much more compelling notion.


A big thanks to Steve Zipp for sending me a copy of his book! While not available in American bookstores, it's readily order-able from the publisher.


  • This sounds fascinating. I like the fact that it begins and ends with a character that eats dog food.

    Without even reading it, I can imagine that "northernness" plays a role. I lived for many years in Wisconsin, and even there, the cold of winter took on a social glue function that helped diffuse the social fissures that erupted so readily in nicer weather.

    Interesting about the name-changing argument. I don't see many hyphenated couples anymore - I wonder if it is just a matter of my world shrinking, or if the practice has gone largely by the wayside.

  • Great review - you write really well. I enjoyed Yellowknife - I liked its quirkiness and refreshing, eccentric characters.

  • I like the idea of a novel set in the Far North of Canada, Emily. Not sure I could handle the dabbling in magical realism, though. I hear what you saying about it being a minimal amount, but like the idea of a dog narrator, though!

  • Oh this is really appealing especailly based on what you say about the cold and the north. I can totally relate to that in Minnesota. I have never run across the name change argument in a book before so I find that intriguing. My husband and I had that conversation. He didn't care what my last name was and we even thought of making a new name that we'd both take but in the end just decided we'd each keep what we had.

  • Thanks for this review, Emily. This novel recently had some press with the "Canada Also Reads" project, and it piqued my interest.

    Really interesting, the name-change debate. I rather think I have come across a similar instance or two in fiction, but I can't for teh life of me recall where, but it would've been Canadian. Some of my US colleagues were recently married and went through the business of changing names, having new email addresses issued, etc, and I couldn't help but think 'Who does that anymore?' -- Here in Quebec, the default is to retain your name; it takes a lot of hoop-jumping to change it. (But then, I never bothered with the hoop-jumping of a legal marriage either.)

  • Thanks for the review of a curiously interesting book. I'm in England where the default weather is "mild and a little crap". As such, books set amidst extreme weather have an intrinsic appeal.

    I lost the name-change argument. My wife insisted on taking my surname, despite my argument that it is an archaic and inherently oppressive custom.

  • Jill: LOL, love your observation about the dog food. I don't know many recently-married couples who are hyphenating, either; most are either keeping their own names or the woman/one of the women changes hers. Although my circle of acquaintance is hardly a scientific sample. :-)

    Tricia: Thanks so much! The characters are definitely out of the common way.

  • Richard: A person could easily make the argument that there's NO magical realism in the book. The closest Zipp gets, as far as I recall, is a sequence in which a character almost drowns, and when he comes to after being rescued he doesn't talk for a while, and is obsessed with fish. But hey, there are stranger true stories than that in any Oliver Sacks book. :-) Mostly I was impressed with his ability to create a bizarre atmosphere sans magical elements.

    Stefanie: Yes, I'd be interested in your Northern perspective. The character Nora brings up the idea of a new, made-up joint name (which my partner & I also talked about) as well. I ended up making the same decision as you - we kept both of ours the same.

  • Isabella: A woman after my own heart - I really relate to what you're saying about your reaction to name-changing (not to mention that we didn't do the legal marriage thing either). But I know lots of women who did/are changing their names, either because they don't particularly like/relate to their dad's names (their maiden names) or because it just seems easier. Don't know of any men who have changed THEIR names because they don't like/identify with their dads' surnames, though.

    Anthony: Haha, I've always imagined I would feel right at home in England, as "mild and a little crap" is our default weather here in western Oregon as well. :-) And I know a few couples in your same situation - the women couldn't WAIT to change their names, and the guys were like "Wait, really??"

  • I have had this book for so long but still have not read it. I should. I know I should. And the extra push I need is what you share here about the ideas of marriage played with lightly and the fact that so many works travel back to dismiss earlier voiced objections to the marriage rituals. My own feelings about marriage are often seen as a little unorthodox so I will spare you here. Let's just say that I am fortunate to be married to someone who also views our union in a non-traditional way.

  • First and foremost, the aesthetics of this website are stunning.
    Secondly, I shall be following this little blog, by your leave of course. I am always interested in the opinions of fellow bookworms.

    My best to you,
    The Idler.

  • Frances: Ha, as one non-traditional lady to another, I feel you! I don't know if I'd go so far as to say Zipp's treatment of the issue is a net PLUS, but it's at least an unexpected twist on an often-irksome outcome. I'd be interested in your thoughts on this one - it's a little unusual, for sure.

    Idler: Well, by all means! The more the merrier. Have also passed on your aesthetic compliments to my live-in web designer. :-)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
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