Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 09/04/2008 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. Not simply one of the best Canadian novels I have read, but one of the best novels, period.
Broken Ground by Jack Hodgins is a novel about broken people living in a broken world. Mainly set in a Returned Soldier's Settlement on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, in the early 1920s, it chronicles the lives of a cast of diverse characters whose destinies are interwoven by the Great War in Europe. The majority of them emigrate west after returning from the European conflict, believing that they cannot remain in Ontario because nothing can ever be the same again. What they are unaware of is the herculean feat of taming the land that awaits them in the forests of Vancouver Island. Just as the giant stumps dotting their farms loom large in their daily business of making a living off of the land, the demons of the war haunt them day and night.
Portuguese Creek, the Returned Soldier's Settlement in which Broken Ground is set, is populated by a diverse and sympathetic array of characters. There's not a single character - including the woman who jilted her lover, and the town gossip - I would refuse to read about in future. As a whole, they are sensitively and compassionately drawn by the author. Life in the bush is one hardship after another, but the characters never come across as mere beasts of burden working the land.
So is this a novel of mere survival? Yes and no. Yes, in that Margaret Atwood's famous identification of Canada's prevailing theme as 'survival' is certainly true of this book. No, in that Hodgins seems to have rejected the absolutism of Maslow's hierarchy of needs in showing how the folks of Portuguese Creek deal with tragedy. When the settlement burns to the ground, one of the characters (a boy when the fire occurs) finds solace in a copy of Joseph Conrad's Tales of Unrest (which he never reads until adulthood). When another character - arguably the main character in this multi-narrator book - travels to the killing fields of France in the 1920s to exorcise the trauma of the war, the men of Portuguese Creek relocate an unused church building to their post-inferno settlement for his sake. The current narrator calls this occurrence "the miracle that was meant to give Portuguese Creek its soul." Life is therefore never reduced to mere survival in Broken Ground, but asserts that true survival is a work of the whole person: body, mind, and soul.
Hodgins' writing style is subtle and unadorned, but beautiful and profound. In this book, which incidentally won the prestigious Ethel Wilson prize in 2000, Hodgins avoids cliché and smarminess by miles, but still manages to weave a story of pathos and resonance, even while relating life experiences the like of which no modern reader will ever encounter. The only warnings I would issue regarding this novel would be the half-dozen expletives (appropriate in context, it would seem to me) and the descriptions of trench warfare (graphic, but never gratuitous). Also, keep in mind that this novel does not subscribe to the typical novel mapping that students cover in elementary school. While there is a climax in the book (the fire), Hodgins has not written the story of Portuguese Creek's fire, but of Portuguese Creek's people. Think of Colleen McCullough's Thorn Birds meets John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath set in rural, untamed British Columbian wilderness.
If you are a novel reader who has tired of the predictable plot arcs of contemporary pulp fiction, Broken Ground is ideal literary fare. You will not simply read about the characters, but live with them. You will travel with them from 1918 France to a 1920s Soldier's Settlement, to modern Portuguese Creek. You will never forget these characters and the life experiences that have shaped them. You will not forget this author, or this book.