Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

(Photo: Amy Attas)

Late Nights on Air won the Canadian Giller Prize in 2007, and I finally got around to it. I’ve been circling. I picked up Alone in the Classroom when I couldn’t get my hands on Late Nights, and I didn’t like it. I think my mind goes dead with multi-generational Canadian novels spanning the 20th century: Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, The Piano Man’s Daughter by Timothy Findley, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields; I find I read them for plot and don’t absorb the writer’s craft or the underlying themes, so they all feel the same. After Alone in the Classroom I gave up on Elizabeth Hay, but her book tour came to town and I forced myself to go. (Side note: I’m forcing myself to book events, since I don’t understand how they work because reading is solitary and writing is solitary and if writers were good in front of a crowd they’d be performers not writers, but book tours exist so I’m trying). Elizabeth Hay’s book talk was very good, even though all she did was read the opening pages of her book and then answer a few questions. The book sounded captivating, so I tried again. The plot of His Whole Life is small, but it’s filled with delicate details and distinct characters who grow and change but remain themselves. It was, and still is, my favorite Elizabeth Hay.

Late Nights on Air takes place in Yellowknife in the 1970’s over a handful of years. It is lovely to have a book set in the north, where the long summer days and cold, weather-beaten winters push these characters around. This book couldn’t have taken place anywhere else. I didn’t notice, particularly, that it was the 1970’s, partly because so many women were gainfully employed at the radio station where all the main characters work. I did notice that everyone likes to go for walks, at all hours, long and far, and no one is wearing a pedometer. The book does feel dated in its heartfelt defense of radio, not because it is set in the 70’s but because it was written before the modern podcast revolution. Radio is seen as the past, television the future, and the characters are working to defend audio’s place. But in today’s world no one is ringing audio’s death knell – radio and television are not a past and future, they are two different mediums with different strengths. The intimacy of audio is known, supported, celebrated.

In His Whole Life, Hay uses the 1995 Quebec referendum as backdrop for her tale of people fighting for unity and falling apart. In Late Nights on Air we have the Berger Inquiry, a series of forums across the north where citizens stated their support or opposition to proposed pipelines. The inquiry turned into something much greater: a referendum on settler-indigenous relations, on the state of the Dene nation, on the terrible history of residential schools, resource extraction, and racism. I attended the Joint Review Panel for Enbridge’s Northern Gateway when it came to Haida Gwaii, and had a similarly moving experience. It is both joyful and heartbreaking to learn that history is repeating itself, that we studied the intersection of indigenous rights, energy needs, and environmental protections and concluded the pipelines shouldn’t go forward, but we have since re-opened the debate. We signed treaties with indigenous groups, we ignored them, and we signed new treaties. I’m still working out what the Berger Inquiry has to do with the other narratives in Late Nights on Air, but I think it helps prove the point that humans are flawed and conflicted, that countries are flawed and conflicted, that, just like when you scrape a shovel against the permafrost to build a pipeline and the frost melts and the soil muddies like ice cream, when you scrape a shovel against the nature of humanity the answers are sloppy and unstable.

Which is not to say that Late Nights on Air is a depressing book. It is full of light, possibility and hope. Hay has a talent for impressively human characters. As a writer it is challenging to make your characters distinct, to give them personality traits that are sharp so that the reader can easily say “Harry wouldn’t do something like that, but Eddy would,” but to hold back from creating cartoonish caricatures. Then, after making distinct characters, it is more challenging still to allow your characters to grow up, to attempt reform, to do the unexpected. This too, is part of what makes us human, but it is extremely hard to pull off. Hay does.

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