When civilizations collide on the open prairie
If you suspect a familial relationship between author and publisher, you’re right. Carl Dow is my dad. And his novel Black Grass is why I became a publisher in the first place, even though it was not The BumblePuppy Press’ first book. So take this response with as much salt as you see fit.
Truth is, when he sent me an early draft of Black Grass, I didn’t even want to read my father’s novel. Some 25 or more years before that he had asked me to read a radio play he’d written, which I did and which I told him was, in a word, terrible.
I didn’t see another piece of fiction from him for a very long time.
So it was with a lot of trepidation that I started to read the manuscript one night, but it was with tears in my eyes that I finished it as the sun was rising the next day.
* * *
Black Grass is a bit of a portmanteau of a novel: part adventure story, part war novel, part love story, with a dollop of history both (as J.R.R. Tolkien put it) true and feigned.
Set north and south of the border of what would become the states of Minnesota and North Dakota and the future province of Manitoba, our hero is none other than Gabriel Dumont, the man who would later become Louis Riel’s military leader.
Carl Dow’s Dumont is a heroic figure of the old school: multi-talented, and illiterate in seven languages, with a warm smile for children and the ability to kill in regretful cold blood when necessary; a sceptic among believers, and the prairie Métis’ Chief of the Hunt, he is a man who loves peace and wants, most of all, to live a nomadic hunter’s life, even as the weight of history threatens all that he loves.
His encounter with that future history starts in earnest in the form of a damsel in distress, Susannah Ross, and the bounty hunters she has led on a chase all the way from Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Run down at last, Susannah faces rape and then a life as a bond-slave until Dumont intervenes, taking the city woman into the heart of his nomad’s world, even as an army of several thousand Fenian raiders masses south of the border, determined to conquer the land held by the Northwest Company, convinced the local Métis population will welcome them as liberators.
If the the opening scene is almost a cliche, Susannah will prove to be far more than the pulpish damsel in distress she at first seems. As a visitor from “civilized” Halifax she serves as a 21st century reader’s eyes into the alien world of 19th century nomads, and also a formidable and complicated character in her own right.
The married Dumont and the widowed Susannah enjoy a pretty modern friendship with benefits; Carl Dow’s sex scenes successfully skirt a very fine line between too coy and too explicit, and also manage to to avoid competing for a Bad Sex in Fiction Award. In Black Grass sex is, above all else, fun.
Similarly, the novel is rich with organic, character-based humour, including some laugh out loud moments. For a short novel whose maguffin is the battle between a small band of Métis hunters and an even smaller, tensely allied force of Chief Sitting Bull’s Dakotah Sioux ranged against several thousand heavily-armed American invaders, Black Grass manages to give the reader plenty of time to experience nomadic life without war or drama.
Black Grass is that rare and fabulous literary beast, a genre novel that successfully straddles several genres at once — action, romance, historical, all folded into a trip into a mostly pretty accurate depiction of a now-distant past. (And what isn’t accurate is convincing. When I was done reading the novel in manuscript, I was hopping mad about what — I thought — my education had neglected to teach me about the history of Canada.)
I’ll leave to other readers the pleasure of figuring out what Carl Dow has taken from history and what he has invented as history.
Black Grass is a novel that will surprise and delight you — and maybe, make you cringe or even offend you. But, as the late British writer L.P. Hartley famously put it, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
Black Grass is available in paper and ebook editions from the usual online vendors, or your local bookshop. For an autographed copy of the first edition, please visit the publisher’s website (that’s right here!).
Note: I was far from the novel’s only beta reader. For a wide range of impressions, please visit the Advance Readers’ Reviews.