John Smelcer’s The Trap tells the story of an entire people through the alternating points of view of two men, Albert Least-Weasel and his teenage grandson, Johnny Least-Weasel. Heightening this sense—and intention, no doubt—of a story striving to transcend the details of its own plot and convert itself into the larger and more encompassing story of a steadily vanishing way of life in a part of the country—the Alaskan Artic Circle—where Nature remains the primary force to be reckoned with are the almost didactic asides in the voice of the single omniscient narrator.
They say that the People of the North have a hundred names for snow. This may not be completely true, but anyone who has lived any time on a frozen land knows that snow has more than one name.
After a couple of pages dedicated to the description of the different types of snow (without reference to the native names for these different types of snow) the authorial voice sums up:
Only the foolish would say there is one word for snow. Anything that lasts so long and buries a world must be many-named.
On the one hand this relatively didactic style functions well and suits the straight-forward plot of a story that revolves around an old and experienced though stubborn trapper who, while clearing the area around one of his traps prior to stringing up fresh bait, inadvertently steps in the trap and finds himself chained to the trunk of a frozen tree as night is coming on.
Over the next few days Albert Least-Weasel struggles to survive exposure to the cold, hunger and thirst, and the assault of a pack of wolves. Meanwhile his grandson becomes ever more worried about him, while waiting in the village for him to come home from checking his lines. Finally—and at least a day later than he would have liked—Johnny sets off on his own snowmobile to search for his grandfather and the two points of view converge in an ending that accelerates in a way that isn’t particularly credible.
As far as I was concerned it was almost as if the story could have done without an ending since all the drama had already taken place during the few days that Albert Least-Weasel remained chained to a tree in the Alaskan winter wild by one of his own traps. The overly dramatic, almost Hollywoodish, ending seemed to me unnecessary.
But I read the book as adult fiction whereas the book seems to be directed at a younger—and in some ways less sophisticated—audience. Hence the didactic style which comes at the price of the loss of distinction in the narrative voice.
And so there was something ‘flat’ about the style and tone. Again, this ‘flatness’ was in some ways appropriate, appropriate to the more simplified—‘natural’—lives and relationships between the Indians and the land, for example, more appropriate as well for relating the way these Indians—particularly the older Indians—spoke to their descendants in a language that was not their original native tongue. But the ‘flatness’ of this tone, while keeping the narrative solidly grounded, also deprived the story of any real potential for resonance.
This is a very personal opinion. And personally I appreciated the anthropomorphization of the natural objects in the story, the way, for example, firewood was regarded and treated as if the fire was like a soul of the wood, something meant to be taken or even stolen from the wood in order for humans to warm themselves and their dwellings.
The old man placed a few larger sticks across the pile and squatted close, warming his hands and face and listening to the popping and hissing of the fire as it ate its breakfast.
Albert Least-Weasel didn’t eat any breakfast, but the fire did!
The spirit of this book could be summed up in this line:
They say it is enough for animals to know existence. But for Indians, they must also marvel at it.
I spent much of my life living in the Sierra de Gredos where winters are nothing like those in Alaska and where men have been taming and destroying what little wilderness remains there for many centuries. But I identify with the author when he writes:
Most men have become deaf. They can barely hear each other anymore, much less nature’s whisperings. Nature is not tailored to man. It exists for itself.
And later, this reflection, when Albert Least-Weasel stops what he’s doing and just listens:
It was quiet, except for the wind, but he could hear the voice of the land talking to him. It had always talked to him, telling him when to put on a jacket or take his boat out of the water. It told him when to push his fish trap into the silty river and when to put his snowmobile away for the winter [note that there is a mistake here: it should be “put his snowmobile away for the summer!”].
It spoke to him now…But he did not like what it had to say. It said something about old age and forgetfulness. It said something about endings, the way it must have talked to every animal ever caught in a trap.
John Smelcer’s first novel is a worthwhile and generous read, sharing freely attitudes and understandings that were once as universal as the culture of hunters and gatherers that extended all across the globe. I say worthwhile because these attitudes and understandings are worth hearing again, and again.