Above the Falls
by John Harris
Published by Touchwood Editions
139 pages, 2007
Trapping a Killer
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
The time is 1936, the place Nahanni River in Northern Canada. Two trappers in a remote area have gone missing. George Dalziel, a successful entrepreneur, had flown them up to his trapline where they were to spend several months trapping marten and beaver for him.
Known as the “flying trapper,” Dalziel is a clever businessman, using his plane to fly his men into the far reaches of South Nahanni and the Liard river, pristine areas new to traplines where the take is bountiful and the life dangerous. He is too successful, however, and the authorities want to shut him down. When he flies in again to pick up pelts and to bring supplies to his men and finds their cabin burnt, he has more to think of than just finding them; if they’re dead this could be just the excuse the government needs to stop his enterprise. What’s he going to do? Dalziel is an interesting, larger-than-life character; he’s the one who moves the story along. I’d like to see a book on his life alone. Actually, a film would be even better.
Harris, who is the author of seven other works, seems to be at home blending fiction and fact, plot and archival research. In this case, an unsolved murder case is the touchstone for the book.
Readers beware, however. The cover of Above the Falls promises a suspense that isn’t there: “A remote lake, a burned-out cabin, two men missing. Was it murder?”
On the back of the book, we have a similar promise of suspense, a gripping winter chase and an unsolved mystery. For me, this publicity is working against the book. Why promise something that is not going to be delivered? In Above the Falls, Harris makes a deliberate choice to put the reader in the know from the start. Dramatic irony, where the reader knows what the characters don’t, allowing us to be omnipotent by giving us information before any of the players. We can then sit back and watch as they stumble toward the truth. What dramatic irony gives up, however, is suspense. We are not reading to find out whodunit, or why, or even how. Readers interested in a good mystery, therefore, won’t find it in Above the Falls.
This real-life mystery may be unsolved in police files, but not in Harris’ book. His research is impressive and his conclusions feel sound. Of course this is that wonderful genre, creative non-fiction. As Harris says in his afterword, where he thoughtfully includes real life biographies of his main characters.:
So if it is not really a mystery, then why read it? For its historical perspective. What the back cover does accurately tell us about the book is that it paints a vivid picture of a now-vanished lifestyle. It portrays trappers living off the land, shooting and drying their meat when they need a fresh supply, catching their fish, sleeping rough, living in small cabins and tents. It reminds us of the frontier mindset -- when the belief that everything in nature was there just for us and just for the taking -- was common. The naïve idea that nature would always provide, no matter how much we took, was prevalent not so long ago. Many of us can still remember a time when a crab trap would yield crabs, when a fishing line would bring up a cod if not a salmon, when shellfish abounded for the taking and when hunting was many of our fathers’ favorite ways of relaxing and filling the freezer. Depending on their points of view, readers may feel nostalgic, or nauseated.
Above the Falls is a fairly quick read, well researched, and well re-created as fiction by an author who knows the area of which he writes and who has had wide experience in writing non-fiction. | July 2007
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.