Late Nights on Air By Elizabeth Hay
Late Nights on Air is an absolutely absorbing and captivating novel - and a very Canadian book. Anyone who has lived in the North will feel they are there once again - and those of us who haven't will want to. It is also a book that will be enjoyed by anyone who is a CBC Radio listener - especially if you miss Peter Gzowski's radio programs as much as I do. For me, his was the voice that connected me to friends and relatives across the country - knowing we were all listening to him and his guests. It was also a connection of Canadians with Canadians - our writers and our thinkers, talking to the rest of us. Peter Gzowski knew what we wanted to hear, and who we wanted to listen to. This novel, set in Yellowknife, in the 1970s is a work of fiction set at a time when the author, Elizabeth Hay, lived there. It is peopled with characters who work at the local CBC radio station, in the last year before the opening of a new CBC building and the introduction of local television in the North. It is also at the time of the Berger Inquiry about the future of a northern gas pipeline and its potential impact on the way of life for the people and the wildlife of the area.
Harry Boyd is the station manager in June 1975 when Dido Paris arrives to work for him. She has a voice that enthralls and Harry, a tired, somewhat defeated man, in his early forties, falls for the voice and for the girl. Having known each other only by voice, neither expected the other to look as they do - the magic of radio.
Gwen Symon arrives the same summer, having driven by herself from Georgian Bay, and comes looking for a job at the CBC. Gwen lacks the confidence and ease of Dido but she has the desire to learn and Harry finds himself the mentor of both young women. Harry has a lot to teach and they are eager to learn. Eleanor Dew, the station receptionist, gives Dido a home in her first months in the north. Eleanor had been in the north for some time - not realizing how lonely she has been until Dido comes along. As the newcomers are woven into the fabric of this small isolated community - whites in the Dene north - they find they are fundamentally changed by their relationships and the environment in which they live.
Dido entrances all of them, drawing them out without ever giving herself away. When she leaves suddenly - she leaves all of those she has touched with a loss they would have difficulty in describing. It is after her departure that Harry, Gwen, and Eleanor, along with reporter, Ralph Cody, plan a canoe trip into the Barrens. These are the famous Barrens of the northern explorer, Samuel Hearn, who coined the phrase the Barren Ground for the arctic expanse of treeless plains that he toiled across between 1769 and 1772. It is the route travelled by John Hornby, who inspired this novel when Elizabeth Hay read his biography The Legend of John Hornby by George Whalley 30 years ago. This is a trip into the wilderness, but not without proper preparation and an awareness of the possible dangers. It is in mid-June, a year after Gwen's arrival in the north, when the foursome sets out, by floatplane loaded with canoes and provisions, to be dropped at the eastern end of Great Slave Lake. They are to paddle and portage for ten days before being picked up at Beverly Lake, 500 miles away. This is true wilderness travel. The beauty of the landscape is brought to life by the author's descriptions of the land and the animals; she traveled here herself in 1978, the year she left Yellowknife after living there for four years. (At some point in the novel she talks about the "five year club" - if you've lived there that long you might stay forever.) It is a long 10 days, days of peaceful paddling and sunshine, days of ice and snow. Their bodies are battered with bruises from dragging their canoes across frozen lakes - their senses sharpened from witnessing small birds and huge herds of migrating caribou. There are periods of intense danger and moments of absolute bliss.
There is a sense of impending tragedy throughout the novel, and as the voyage is almost complete, it strikes. Their lives will never be the same again. This trip will bind the survivors for the rest of their lives.