Review: Kai Thomas’ Gothic Novel ‘In The Upper Country’

A captivating debut fiction, “In the Upper Country” offers a novel of nested stories: animal tales, autobiographical fragments, fables, parables, travelogues, excerpts from slave diaries, anecdotal recollections and journalistic articles. Ottawa-born Kai Thomas has built a cerebral puzzle box of a gothic-tinged historical novel; he reinvents (and repopulates) rural Victorian Ontario while also meditating on family, community, indigeneity, history and Canada’s roles in the slave trade.

The origins of the novel connect a bygone era to the here and now. Thomas concludes “Upper Country” with a curious author’s note—an anecdote about himself, the police, and a First Nations man—all of which takes place between college terms when he was planting trees near a remote BC town. The event, lodged in his memory, fueled a growing interest in creative writing. It turns out to be an unexpectedly contemporary inspiration for fiction set well before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Thomas’s ultimate goal, he writes, “was to conjure a world that was very close to the ‘real’ world, yet different in some of the ways fiction allowed.” Unrecognizable as a “real place,” Dunmore, Ontario—a black enclave and “swamp town full of witches and moonshine”—is the primary setting for the novel. In Dunmore, Jane-of-all-trades Lensinda Martin helps edit the abolitionist periodical “Coloured Canadian”. With her “apple skin, saucy tongue and belligerent looks”, Lensinda has a reputation for being difficult.

Lensinda begins her story in 1859, where she is tormented by work tasks. A bundle of impulses and opinions (she’s known as an unchurched “wild thing of the forest”, a “high country witch”, and one of many local doctors “with a knowledge of potions and poisons”), Lensinda can lay no claim to a widespread popularity. As the protagonist, though, she’s in charge.

In the first chapter of “Upper Country,” neighbors warn Lensinda of news: a “strange story” that may or may not involve a fatal shooting at a nearby farm outside of Dunmore, which is an Underground Railroad hub where bounty hunters and slaves flee the south are commonplace. He questions eyewitness farmer Simeon, who replies to Lensinda’s frankness (“What the hell happened down here?”) with a zigzagging chronicle.

The end of his long and winding story ends with a mortally wounded bounty hunter and an elderly black woman, a runaway. Intrigued by this stranger (and eagerly pursuing the topic of an article), Lensinda soon visits a prison in nearby Chatham. He tells the cantankerous old prisoner, “People might want to know how an old woman shot a man in a cornfield.” The woman asks for transactions: she trades facets of her story about her for stories about Lensinda. Passed, Lensinda agrees. When the “crown” – named Cash, is later revealed – then tells the fable of the rabbit and the fox, Lensinda wonders, “What was the crone playing at?”

Stubborn, quarrelsome women keep fighting.

Enigmatic and elliptical, harrowing and heartbreaking, the story exchanges put readers in Lensinda’s position: what purposes do these stories serve? What truths could they communicate?

Gradually, as the tales proliferate and overlap, Thomas identifies connections – a lineage – between Lensinda and Cash. (Though their relationship remains prickly: “What you believe in,” snaps the prisoner after Lensinda doubts a tale’s revelations, “is none of my concern. You’re not in Sunday service, girl.”)

Thomas uses a theatrical setup: two apparent strangers in a dark cell exchanging stories as an indirect way to both communicate and understand each other. Through it she illustrates the growing familiarity and commonality of women, and also their shared heritage. If the number and type of stories occasionally become unwieldy and eclipse the glamorous portrayal of Dunmore and its citizens (including Lensinda, his no-nonsense boss and bartender), there is an undeniable strength in the embedded stories and historical truths. which lead to vivid life.

Brett Josef Grubisic lives on Salt Spring Island, BC. He published his first paid book review in 1994 and is the author of five novels.

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