Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In the introduction to Arrowdreams, editors Mark Shainblum and John Dupuis sum up this anthology's biggest problem when he discusses the number of Canadian authors who rejected his request for stories "because they 'didn't know enough about Canadian history.'" Unfortunately, this also means that most readers (especially non-Canadian readers) will most likely suffer from the same disadvantage. To combat this, the stories of alternate history either need to have extremely obvious branch points or they need to work as stories, not as alternate history. Arrowdreams contains a mixture of stories that work, that work as alternate history and that fail.
If you are a fan of hockey, then "Hockey's Night in Canada," the opening story of this anthology, may be the story for you. For those who dont follow hockey, the point of the story seems lost as Canadian Kevin Wilson tries to break into Russian dominated Canadian hockey. The branch point is clearly an incident in the early seventies, but Edo van Belkom fails to provide the non-hockey fan with a reason for caring about either his characters or the changes which make his world different from the real world.
Nancy Kirkpatrick's "Gross Island--The Movie" is one of the stories in Arrowdreams which fails as an alternate history, but works as a regular story. Kirkpatrick tells of a nineteenth-century cholera outbreak. Instead of changing the history that surrounds the outbreak on Grosse Ile, Kirkpatrick leaves the history alone but looks at a Hollywood production company making a film about the outbreak. Naturally, the director keeps changing the history to build the drama of the situation. Although there is nothing new in the idea that Hollywood plays havoc with history, Kirkpatrick does a good job in presenting that fact.
"Health in Us" by Paul Johanson doesnt really work as an alternate history since it is unclear where and when the branch point comes. Unfortunately, as the story of an Indian woman who leaves her Anglo husband because she is faced with some intolerance towards both herself and her people, "Health in Us" doesnt work particularly well either. Relationships and motivations seem to be only murkily defined and the story seems to drift towards its conclusion.
Over the past several decades, the movement for an independent Quebec has waxed and waned. Following a 1995 referendum, Keith Scotts Quebec seceded from Canada in "On the Edge." His portrayal of a depressed Canada which is quickly reverting to a frontier mentality which not only turns away from strangers, but actively abuses them and looks at them with suspicion is at chilling odds with the Canada which currently exists.
"Perhaps the most striking thing about Canada is that it is not part of the United States." This obvious, but often overlooked statement which opens Michael Skeet's story "Close Enough to Home" perhaps best sums up the need for an anthology like Arrowdreams. Despite many surface similiarites, Canada has a separate culture, language, political system, etc. than its southern neighbor. In fact, Skeet makes the US Canada, at least in part. His story is set in the 1850s during the Civil War. The Louisiana territory became British in 1802 and part of Canada when it became a nation in the 1840s. All this is background to the story which tells of the search for a St. Louisian constable for his estranged brother through the war-torn Confederacy. In his travels, he is captured by deserters and held with a Federal colonel. Although the ending is telegraphed, the story works well as both a piece of fiction and alternate history, although it could have been longer and come to a more complete conclusion.
Derryl Murphy's "Cold Ground" introduces magic to the Canadian frontier, making the Metis Leader Louis Riel a sorcerer who uses magic to avoid being hanged successfully. This, again, is a story which works on its own, but fails as alternate history without knowing the background behind it. The magic doesn't seem to have a specific rationale behind it, and Murphy's characters, Gabriel and Robert Baden Powell seem divorced from their historical counterparts.
One weakness which many alternate history stories suffer from is the need to fill in the reader about the changes which have occurred in the altered world. Shane Simmons's "Misfire," unfortunately suffers from this problem when it could easily have been avoided. In Simmons's world, Roy Brown failed to shoot down the Red Baron with the result being that Richthofen was in charge of the Luftwaffe in WWII and the Battle of Britain was successful. Although Simmons's handling of the changed details is interesting, by having a 1940s-era Brown obsess with his failure to kill Richthofen, firm in the knowledge that he is responsible for Britain subjugation, Simmons weakens the story by reminding the reader that they are within the bounds of a story.
Allan Weiss:s "The Last of the Maccabees" begins with the intriguing premise of a New World which has Jewish Indians being colonized by an Old World in which Judaism died out under the enslavement of the Pharoahs. In Weisss world, Christianity never arose and the Romans and French who colonize the New World are followers of various branches of paganism. The story tells of thelast of the Maccabee tribe who is attempting to unite the disparate Indian tribes against the new invaders. Although the story works, in general, Weiss does include some jarring anachronisms, such as the Indians speaking a mixture of Hebrew and Yiddish or the invading tribes being called the French.
The Canada of "The Coming Age of the Jet" presents a Utopian (by Canadian lights) world in which the ability of the Canadians to sell the world on the first jet plane causes Canada to become one of the great industrial and technological powers in the twentieth century. Eric Choi presents the story as a sales pitch by one of A.V. Roes representatives to the Canadian Airlines. The story is well-written and doesn't make the reader suspend their disbelief excessively.
Dave Duncan's "For the Want of a Nail" actually creates a realistic premise in which the characters can discuss the point of divergence, in this case the first meeting of Wolfe and Montcalm after the Fields of Abraham. However, while Duncan does a good job in explaining the point of divergence, he falls down when it comes to extrapolating the changes which resulted from Wolfe's defeat.
Just as Nancy Kirkpatrick looked at alternate history from one step removed in "Gross Island--The Movie," so too does Glenn Grant in "Thermometers Melting." This story purports to be excerpts from a novel set during WWI about a young reporter named Ernest Hemingway from the Kansas City Star who is sent to Canada to interview a man held prisoner for nine months without charges, Leon Trotsky. The story is well written and hardly needs the twist ending Grant provides.
Finally, "Laurent McAllister" (a nom de plume for authors Yves Meynard and Jean-Louis Trudel) write about "The Case of the Serial 'De Québec à la Lune,' by Veritatus," another story which works as a piece of metafiction. The framework is a scholarly paper about the recently discovered French serial "De Québec à la Lune." The discussion is dry, although the inclusion of footnotes do help the reader see at least a little of how they are trying to change history. In the middle of the scholarly work, McAllister includes the fourth, penultimate, episode of the story, which is a sort of mixture of Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and religious tract. Although the story by McAllister is not the easiest one in the anthology to read, it is well worth reading.
While many of the stories require a greater knowledge of Canadian history than is common (certainly in the United States), this problem could have been solved by including historical information in the author notes which precede each story. Although it might be nice to know that Paula Johanson teaches writing in the winter, it might be more useful to know some of the details of the true history on which the various stories are based. It is, perhaps, surprising, moreover, that some major alternatives were not explored. Some which come to mind include an entirely francophone Canada, a Canada which has more hostile relations with the US (although this is touched upon in Michael Skeet's "Close Enough to Home"), a Canada which remained part of Britain or a Canada which invaded and annexed parts of the US.
|Edo van Belkom||Hockey's Night in Canada|
|Nancy Kilpatrick||Gross Island--The Movie|
|Paula Johnson||Health in Us|
|Keith Scott||On the Edge|
|Michael Skeet||Near Enough to Home|
|Derryl Murphy||Cold Ground|
|Allan Weiss||The Last of the Maccabees|
|Eric Choi||The Coming Age of the Jet|
|Dave Duncan||For the Want of a Nail|
|Glenn Grant||Thermometers Melting|
|Laurent McAllister||The Case of the Serial "De Québec à la Lune," by Veritatus|