Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Joe Adler's hometown of Black River was once a thriving mining and logging town. Now, it is struggling to survive. Many of the men have moved out to find work elsewhere. But Joe is a third-generation Black River logger and has no intention of ever leaving. Luckily, he still has a reasonably stable job as a foreman in the local logging company owned by his friend, Paul Henri. Paul has been hitting the roads hard to find new contracts to reinvigorate the business and has left Joe in charge of the day-to-day operations.
Logging is a dangerous business, and Joe has a demanding schedule making sure that deadlines are met and his workers are safe. This leaves little time to spend with his family. Joe's physical and emotional absences undermine his marriage to Sarah, his high school sweetheart. Sarah, who no longer shares her husband's love for Black River, now dreams of being a writer. When a three-week creative writing course accepts her enrolment, she is off to Toronto, leaving their seven-year-old daughter, Anna, in Joe's care. The weeks turn into months, and it becomes clear that Sarah is not coming back.
His wife's departure is only one of Joe's problems. One of his best workers, Dan Lacroix, dies in an accident on Joe's watch, and some in the town blame him for it. Dan has left behind a young wife, Jenny, and two children. Unlike others, Jenny doesn’t hold Joe responsible for her husband's death and tells him so, but she is in a serious bind. Dan's life insurance settlement won't pay the bills for long, and employment prospects in the town are few. Joe decides to help Jenny out by paying her to provide after-school care for his daugher Anna. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement and Anna gets along well with Jenny's daughters. The common love of Joe and Jenny for Black River and their sense of loss, his over being abandoned by his wife and hers for the death of her husband, spur a friendship between the two. Some in the town begin to spread rumours that there is more than friendship involved. Terry Pike, one of Dan's best friends, accuses Jenny of dishonouring her dead husband. Pike has also for months talked behind Joe's back, accusing him of being responsible for Dan's death. Joe violently confronts the man in the local bar and is charged with assault. Joe's legal problems now compounded with pressures at work, the dissolution of his marriage and confused feelings toward Jenny push him, like his father before him, to alcohol.
While the novel is already rich in the details of Joe's current dilemmas, the author also weaves in the story of his father and grandfather, and the mysterious death of the latter. This subplot is vital to understanding Joe's character, apprehensions, at times violent behaviour and his recurrent reliance on alcohol. Gradually, we realize that Joe is struggling to escape multi-generational failure, and only the uncovering of the secrets of his family's past will bring him the closure needed to move forward.
Matt Mayr, who now lives in Toronto, was born in the Northern Ontario mining town of Manitouwadge. He is well placed to convey the powerful images of black spruce in the Canadian Shield, and equally well versed in the comings and goings of small-town life. From the first to last chapter, Mayr engages the readers in a tense narrative, which is coherent, insightful and told from a working-class perspective. Like Steinbeck's salt-of-the-earth migrant farmworkers, Mayr's characters are real, rough and shaped by tough times. But this is not the work of an unsophisticated storyteller. A graduate of the Humber School for Writers and English major from York University, Mayr demonstrates a high level of literary craft. His poignant descriptions, compelling plot and skillful character arcs draw the reader to the northern landscape and its people. Things Worth Burying is a novel worth reading and stands in sharp contrast to the current wave of urban angst-filled and often superficial narratives. It takes the reader to core meanings of community, family and overcoming generational failure in a way that is contemporary, impactful and enduring.
Things Worth Burying is published by Baraka Books.