Fiction Review by Jamie Dopp

David Carpenter, The Gold (Regina: Cormorant, 2017). Paperbound, 353 pp., $21.95.

The GoldDavid Carpenter's The Gold tells the story of Joseph Burbridge, who begins life as the child of a Yorkshire miner around the time of the First World War. When Burbridge is young, his father dies, leaving the family destitute, and forcing his mother to remarry. Burbridge's stepfather sends him to boarding school, where he is caned by a sadistic headmaster and tormented by a bully. He bests the bully but expelled as a result, and decides to try his luck in Canada, remembering the advice of his late father that if he must become a miner he should forget about coal and instead "go to the wild…and prospect for gold."

From the outset, then, The Goldsets itself up as a rags-to-riches tale. Like the classic versions of such tales—David Copperfield and Jane Eyre come to mind—The Goldalso portrays its protagonist's journey from poverty to extraordinary success as a personal coming of age. Unlike David Copperfield or Jane Eyre, however, Joseph Burbridge's success does not get him true love or a sense of completed self. The Gold is not exactly a rags-to-riches-to-rags story either, in the manner of Citizen Kane or the recent film Gold (based on the Canadian Bre-X scandal), but the last third does foreground the challenges faced by Burbridge as he tries to claim the "happy ever after" ending that seems his right after a successful quest.

Before Burbridge faces the challenges of success, he must first achieve it. The long first part of the novel details his adventures in quest of gold. He survives a shipwreck off the coast of Newfoundland, and travels to the Treaty Eight area south of Great Slave Lake with a crusty old adventurer named Stinky Riley and "a halfbreed Cree" named Isodore. Years later, after many adventures and hardships, Joe and Stinky strike pay dirt. Stinky rushes off to register the claim while Joe stays behind to guard it from a villainous claim-jumper named Buster Krahn. Violence ensues. Joe has to return from the barrens in winter on foot. He barely avoids hanging by angry Indians who take him for an associate of Buster Krahn. Finally, back in civilization, he discovers that Stinky has successfully registered their claim and sold it to a mining company. Joseph Burbridge is a rich man.

The most vivid scenes in the novel are in this first part. I was particularly impressed by the detail with which Carpenter portrays the prospecting scenes, the way Joseph learns to read the northern geology for signs of gold: "They wandered…along a hog's back that was striped here and there with a zebra pattern…an iron-bearing fault zone…. Some of the quartz down here was white, some dark blue, and some dark grey, enclosing big crystals of feldspar." The scenes of hardship and violence have an understated precision that is compelling. At times, there is a subtle irony in the presentation. Partly this is an effect of the narrating voice, Burbridge telling his tale in retrospect, but partly it has to do with Carpenter's sly use of Western-style stock characters (Stinky Riley!). It's as if Carpenter dares his reader not to get emotionally involved despite the fact that the characters are such recognizable types. The technique reminded me a little of George Bowering's Caprice, or certain novels of Robert Kroetsch—with equally pleasurable effects.

A more noticeable irony emerges in the second and third parts, when, after striking it rich, Burbridge realizes it has not solved the question of his identity. Despite the recognition that he has reached what a "book writer" would say is the end of his story, Burbridge does not live happily ever after. Instead, he ends up with a false identity in a childless, and largely loveless, marriage, and lingers this way for about twenty-five years without a clear sense of purpose (except to collect illegal gold bullion). The closest thing to a heroic afterlife that he achieves is to own a dog named Galahad.

The third part of the novel focuses on Burbridge's attempt to adopt Rennie, the son of one of his servants, as his heir. Burbridge plays father to Rennie so that he can at least pass on some of what he has learned in life, along with a small part of his fortune. After Burbridge's death, Rennie goes to see Stinky Riley, as Burbridge has instructed him to, and Stinky tries to persuade him to sell off his inheritance to fund another prospecting expedition. "You mean sell all this gold so I can go look for more gold?" Rennie asks. The question, in a concise way, sums up the main question the tale raises: what happens when the quest for gold has no other purpose than itself? The greatest value of Burbridge's adventure is finally to illustrate what Master Herron told him back in boarding school: "Learn from the past and live in the present." Young Rennie seems to understand this lesson intuitively.

—Jamie Dopp

As in The Malahat Review, 201, Winter 2017, 106-108