By Danielle Soisin
…I felt severely let down by the lack of scaly tail…
From a rock face that overhangs Lake Superior from the Canadian region of Ontario, it is possible to view pictographs drawn by native Indians that ruled over the area hundreds of years ago. Consulting a Canadian tourist site, it turns out that one must first undertake an hour-long hike down the cliff-side, descending 98 feet and navigating “interesting [aka, dangerous] geological features” such as sheer cliffs and rock chasms. By the end, however, you get a decent view of the various images drawn by the lake’s previous inhabitants; canoes, moose, deer, bear and caribou all feature… other animal-like figures have horns and spines. It is at this point that myths and legends start to play their part in the ancient past of this great lake. And it is exactly this mysticism, saturating the history of Lake Superior, which weaves its way through the contrasting narratives of The Long-Shining Waters, by Danielle Soisin.
We follow the lives of three women: a native American from the year 1622, Grey Rabbit, who is plagued by nightmares and prophetic anxiety; a fisherman’s wife, Berit, who lives in a lakeside cabin with her husband in 1902; and Nora, a grandmother and pub-owner who lives in present day USA.
The chronological disparity between the three women makes for an exciting premise, and the best thing about this book is the way that the great lake creates a bridge between the worlds of people who are otherwise wholly disconnected. The recurring image of forest, water and sky, witnessed by Grey Rabbit, Berit and Nora respectively, manages to close the gap between them and the lake begins to feel like a character in and of itself.
The lake’s presence is not altogether reassuring, however. All three women are at once dependent on the lake, and simultaneously cowed by its power. Grey Rabbit has visions of dead children floating in its waters and of waves reaching in to sweep her son offshore. Berit’s husband, on a clear, calm and seemingly danger-free day, never returns from his fishing trip. And Nora, after losing her pub in a fire, despairingly embarks upon a road trip to circle the whole of the lake. Told repeatedly that she is going the wrong way round, the cold waters of Lake Superior during the winter make for a chilly companion and Nora often feels despondent and uncomfortable, as though being watched from afar. The power and danger that the lake possesses is made clear in all three narratives. It is a warning not to underestimate your natural surroundings as well as a reminder of the vastness and unknowability of nature.
There is something rather nice about the role that nature plays in the novel and the three women protagonists are well thought through and likeable. The dominant, unchanging nature of Lake Superior and the danger that it poses stays consistent across the three narratives and in doing so, Soisin makes the loves and lives of these three women similarly united.
It is true also that The Long-Shining Waters has received a huge amount of recognition locally. It won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize (its Minneapolis-based publisher), and was chosen as the One Book South Dakota 2013. It was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, as well as The Midwest Independent Bookseller’s Choice Award. It is appreciated in this corner of the Midwest, undoubtedly, as a tribute to the area’s relationship with its wild surroundings, highlighting the place of Lake Superior in the hearts and minds of its inhabitants, whatever the era.
Outside of a certain regional fondness for the tale, however, there are certain points where the novel falls flat.
This is, perhaps, due to the gradual increase in tension which trails off too early into nothing. Each character appears to become more and more entranced and unnerved by the formidable and seemingly endless expanse of lake. All three women have strange dreams, heightening the mystique of their tales. Furthermore, the character of Grey Rabbit means that The Long-Shining Waters offers an abundance of Indian superstition. Her dreams are taken extremely seriously by her family and even start to turn her mind. Perturbed by visions relating to the lake, the family begins to make small offerings such as leaving bundles of food in coves or at the bottom of cliffs. The mysticism evoked by the prophetic visions of Grey Rabbit- as well as her highly respectful behavior towards the lake as a result- seeps into the other narratives. We read Nora’s modern-day story differently, half-expecting her to glimpse the tip of a huge scaly tail retreating back into the waves.
I felt severely let down by the lack of scaly tail. As far as I was concerned, my excitement waned rather sharply after the midway point of this novel and by the end I was left feeling as though a promise had not been fulfilled. This disappointment stemmed in particular from just before Berit’s husband drowns in the lake, and ‘…a scaly muscled wall of black glides directly in front of his face.’ Surely it wasn’t overly presumptive of me to assume that things were about get rather interesting?
(I’m still not 100% sure if this is a profound metaphor that went over my head. If so, it was an exceptionally clever metaphor because I still don’t get it.)
In any case, the aforementioned (potentially metaphoric) scaly monster never materialized, which means that The Long-Shining Waters is simply a novel that hints at the mystical whilst remaining thoroughly realist. I wouldn’t have minded so much if I hadn’t felt so misled.
Ultimately, it is no surprise that the people local to Lake Superior have deemed this novel a must-read. Considering the message that it gives concerning the timeless beauty and dangers of this lake, The Long-Shining Waters is something that must particularly resonate with those who have actually ventured into its waters. To those who are not native to the Midwest, The Long-Shining Waters is likely not worth reading, as it offers little that could be seen as especially interesting in terms of plot, style or language in order to otherwise engage us. It really is a shame that, without any emotional investment in the area, it remains a little difficult fully partake in the feelings of awe and wonderment that Danielle Soisin clearly wishes her reader to take home.