This 71-year-old writer's coming-of-age novel is a debut like no other
Brian Thomas Isaac's childhood on B.C.'s Okanagan Indian Reserve was valuable fodder for fiction
This story was published on Oct. 15, 2021.
At first glance, Brian Thomas Isaac's debut novel, All the Quiet Places seems like a fairly conventional foray into fiction.
It's a coming-of-age story about a boy named Eddie Toma, whose life resembles that of its author in countless ways.
But that's where convention ends when it comes to the book, which features the kinds of characters seldom seen in fiction, and which Isaac didn't publish until he was 71 years old.
"You go to work. You get married. And by the time you sit down and start to write, it's quite a gap," he told As It Happens host Carol Off.
"But I did remember all of those things ... and I do have a child's imagination."
A 'hyper-vigilant' protagonist
Perhaps Isaac's memory is served by a characteristic he appears to share with his protagonist, Eddie.
"He's a young boy who notices everything," Isaac said. "I guess you could say he's hyper-vigilant.... He prefers to be outside by himself or walking down to visit his grandma or going fishing in the river, all by himself. Even at a very young age, he was able to do this. So he has freedom."
I can't write a mystery. I can't write science fiction, because I don't know that. I know ... my life, and that's what I use as my template.- Brian Thomas Isaac, author
Like Isaac's own house growing up, Eddie's is small — just a central kitchen and two adjoining bedrooms, all of them barely insulated and lacking electricity, despite his mother's repeated entreaties to local Indian agents, the Canadian government's representatives on First Nations reserves up until the 1960s.
"If you looked at it right now, you'd say, 'Well, that's a shack,'" Isaac said. "But it was a home to them."
It's only through the eyes of infrequent visitors that Eddie realizes his family's poverty. And it's clear Isaac has personal experience with this, too.
"Throughout the book, I do use my own life experiences as a reference," he said. "Because that's all I know. I can't write a mystery. I can't write science fiction, because I don't know that. I know what I know about my life, and that's what I use as my template."
Fearless mothers and grandmothers
Another thing Isaac and Eddie share is the presence of formidable women in their young lives.
Asked about his own mother, Issac produced a description that just as easily befits Eddie's mother, Grace.
"She was very tough," he said. "And she was always on watch. She never, ever took her foot off the gas pedal as far as, you know, being vigilant."
That toughness is displayed routinely in All the Quiet Places, and Isaac says it featured prominently in his childhood too, particularly when an Indian agent once threatened to send him and his brother to a residential school.
"He said, 'I've come to take your boy.'" Isaac said. "And my mother said, 'You're not taking him anywhere. You're going to have to kill me first.' And she kind of ... put us behind her, stuck her arms out [and said,] 'You're going to have to pull that gun out there and kill me. I'm not moving.'
"They didn't bother us again after that."
Between the 1870s and the 1990s, Canada's federal government took more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their families and forced them to attend church-run residential schools designed to assimilate them by stripping them of their own languages and cultures.
Thousands of children died in the schools.
The spectre of residential schools is one of many that hovers throughout Isaac's novel, without ever becoming its explicit focus.
"I could have spoken more about certain things, but I didn't want to," Isaac said. "I didn't want to speak about residential schools too much because I never went, and it would be an insult to all the people who did go whose lives were changed. I just didn't feel qualified."
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His perspective on the horrors of residential schools is informed by his mother's determination that he avoid them, and by her shared insistence with his grandmother that he learn the ways of white people, or summa, as they're called in his book.
"I visited my grandmother quite a bit. And I went there one day and there were six old ladies and they're all talking the Okanagan language, and they would laugh and laugh … and so when they left, I said to my grandma, 'Hey can you teach me how to talk like that?' And she said, 'No, you don't need to know that.'"
Ultimately, All the Quiet Places ends with Eddie on something of a precipice — and leaves the reader feeling relieved that Isaac's life has diverged from that of his character, at least in some ways.
Isaac says another of his characters was heavily inspired by his wife, Marlene, who also spurred him to start writing in the first place.
He says it wasn't until 2003, after an adulthood spent working as a bricklayer and in an oilpatch, that she convinced him he should go attend a writers' festival in Penticton, B.C. Unbeknownst to him, she even submitted a piece of writing for an award — one he ended up winning.
"My jaw dropped," Isaac said of the winners' announcement that year. "That's what made me sit down and start to write."
When he did, he was amazed at what came back to him.
"I can remember so many things about being that age, fishing, [being in] a storm, or making a kite. All those things … meant a lot to me then. And I do recall it quite vividly."
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Isaac says he hopes that capturing so many of his memories in fiction will provide his own grandchildren with a window into his past — and their heritage.
"They're getting a glimpse into something that they didn't know, you know? Being raised in a house with no power and water and no iPads, nothing.
"It's for my grandbabies," he said. "They're the most beautiful little things."
Written and produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.