Whether by choice or circumstance, some people live in isolation, but even these lone figures eventually find connection in, and to, this world. Linda Little’s second novel Scotch River offers readers a chance to contemplate this idea through her two main characters, Cass Hutt and Pipe Holmes.
“For me one of the main themes is solitude,” Little says, on the phone from her home in River John, on the Northumberland Strait.
Scotch River opens with snapshots from Cass Hutt’s road trip from the foothills of Alberta to Nova Scotia—a provocative reversal of the historical flow of Maritimers to the oil-rich West.
Nova Scotia-born, Hutt has worked and worn himself down toiling at ranches and rodeos in Alberta. He grew up, became a man, out there. He has just lost his rodeo partner and only friend to a bull. When Hutt receives an unexpected deed to property in rural Scotch River—which Little says is similar to but not strictly based on River John —he takes the opportunity to head home and start over.
Hutt becomes a loner by chance. He goes with the flow of circumstances in his life. None of them are happy ones. He doesn’t know anyone and no one knows him. Little draws this lonely state well: Hutt says little, stands back to slowly appraise and understand situations rather than recoil in fear.
Besides evoking the speech and stance of the character, Little drops an iconic image of Western isolation—the cowboy—onto Maritime shores. It works. As Hutt shows up in Scotch River in his Stetson hat, picks up work as a hand on a dairy cattle farm owned by a German man and rides around town on a mare, readers accept that this man could be so alone that even the slightest sign—the property deed—could call him back to a place where he only has a vague, or forgotten, history.
Little follows this misplaced figure to answer the question: “What is the least you can possibly have?” Looking at Hutt, Little suggests one can get pretty light in the load in terms of worldly goods and relationships.
Despite his resilience and self-containment, Hutt “can’t escape the pull towards community and towards family,” Little says with a compassion for him that also shows in her writing.
Little writes well in a male voice. She also assumes a man’s point of view in her 2001 debut novel, Strong Hollow, which was nominated for the Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize.
As some men do, Hutt gets caught up in “that space between what we feel and what we say.” He doesn’t know how to articulate that space, his own consciousness.
As a counterpoint to Cass Hutt, Little offers another lonely figure, Pipe Holmes, an outsider artist cached away on the land held by Hutt’s deed.
As a deaf woman, Pipe has a handful of communication choices: sign language, speech or a combination. Little writes clearly of when she chooses one over the others because there’s always an intended impact to choosing the mode, the author says. For example, Pipe “could speak and people might not understand,” a feeling that doesn’t lead to frustration for Pipe. If the people in her life, her careless and callous family, don’t get her, it’s their fault.
Pipe chooses to keep people at bay, sharing company with her dog Blackwood and some geese. Her art comforts her, but confuses others, a great reminder Little puts to readers of how people stereotype artists as strange, alien figures and art as an unusual and useless pursuit (even though, Little insists, “it’s our nature to create things”).
Scotch River itself is isolated, a rural community of fishermen and farmers. Little’s setting, her drawing of it, supports the theme well. “There are still people left who do this basic, primary industry,” Little says with a laugh.
It’s easy to forget that, less so Cass Hutt and Pipe Holmes.
Linda Little launches Scotch River at The Cellar Bar & Grill, 5677 Brenton Place, Halifax, 429-3318.