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Book Review: Nikolski by Nicolas Dicker

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Theoretically you should be able to stand just about anywhere in the world with a compass in your hand and it will always point north. While that in itself isn't exactly practical, most compasses also come equipped with the means to help you figure out how to go in the direction you want based on its relationship to due north. Many compasses come with two dials; one fixed and one that rotates. As long as you keep north on the moveable dial aligned with the needle pointing in that direction, your readings will always be true and you should never lose your bearings.

Of course if your compass is off in its reading of due north every other reading you make will be the same amount off course and you could find yourself missing your intended target by thousands of miles. You supposedly can confirm the veracity of North by locating the pole star in the sky by drawing a line to it through one side of the constellation "The Big Dipper". History tells us that escaping slaves trying to get to Canada from the United States along the underground railroad used this method of following "the Drinking Gourd" to make it safely North.

I don't know about anybody else but I've never been able to execute even that simplest of navigational tasks using the night sky. I can usually find the Big Dipper easily enough, but tracing a line from it to the North or Pole star seems beyond my abilities. There are just too many damned stars in the sky and as far as I'm concerned they could all be the right one, or none of them are right. I've been able to use a compass with some degree of success in the past, but the reality is without a map or atlas I'm pretty much lost.
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In Nicolas Dickner's first novel, Nikolski published by Random House Canada through its Knoff imprint, a compass and maps lead three members of the same family on circuitous routes across Canada and South America, as they search out a place to call home. Each of them have come of age with only one parent, and either through choice or circumstances, isolated in worlds of their own. Their only means of connecting to the world around them has been in how they relate to it through maps, points on the compass, and other tools of cartography.

For Joyce, growing up the North Shore of the St. Lawrence river in the isolated fishing community of Tete-a-la-Baleine (Head of the Whale or Whale Head), her first maps were the nautical charts her fisherman father kept that grabbed her attention. Being what felt like the only female surrounded by a sea of uncles and male cousins who would descend on their house Saturday nights for their Montreal Canadians fix and to escape their wives, the fact that not a single road away from the village appeared on these maps, only increased her feelings of being trapped. Her only salvation came in the shape of her maternal grandfather, who aside from her was the last remaining member of her mother's family in Tete-a-la-Baleine.

From his stories of her infamous pirate ancestors came her desire to become a buccaneer, but career opportunities for piracy in the late twentieth century are slim. It's not until she's at the point of almost finishing high school that she is given what she knows to be a sign. A newspaper article about a young woman in Chicago, sharing her mother's maiden name, arrested for piracy on the high seas of the Internet, is sufficient to set her feet on the road to Montreal in in search of prize ships and chest of virtual gold.

Her Uncle Jonas had blazed a trail around the world for any Doucet brave enough to follow. At fourteen he had signed on board a tramp steamer heading out of the Port of Montreal and spent the next eight years of his life literally at sea. Arriving back in Canada he headed west and then North to Alaska where he would end his days in Nikolski – a small isolated fishing and sheep raising community in the Aleutian Islands. Along his way he fathered two children, (by two separate women), whom he never met; Noah and the narrator of our story.

Noah is born and raised in a trailer that sails through the ocean of prairie land between the western border of Ontario in the east, and the Rocky Mountains in the West. It seems like his mother, Sarah Riel, is reluctant to leave the land of her people, and like her Chipewa fore-bearers roamed the plains as a nomad pulling her house behind her. Noah learned to read from the roadmaps that plotted their paths, and once he was competent he was appointed full time navigator.

Never in one place long enough to enrol in school, Noah was home schooled until eighteen. It was then he decided he needed to plot his own course in the world, so he sat the Manitoba Department of Education Exams needed to pass his Grade Twelve diploma that would allow him to attend university. East is the only direction he's never really been, so he applies to and is accepted by the University of Montreal, where he signs up for a degree in Archaeology.

Jonas's daughter, our narrator, has just buried her mother, who died of a brain tumour, and is working in the same used bookstore in Montreal on St-Laurent Boulevard that she was hired on at when she was fourteen. Around her neck she wears the one memento that she has from her father, a chap plastic compass that due to an anomaly instead of pointing due north points in a direct line from Montreal to Nikolski.

It's been said about travelling that the journey there is half the fun, and the journey that Nicolas Dickner takes us on with his three main characters, their families, friends, and various hangers on, is no exception to that rule. Noah and Joyce have travelled to Montreal in the hopes of finding their place in the world. For both of them though it is just the first stop on the map that their lives will plot. One is seeking to find solid ground beneath his feet after spending a life of wandering, and the other is searching for the open seas after years of confinement.

In spite of the fact that the characters barely set foot on board a ship, save for uncle/father Jonas, Nikolski is as much a sea tale as Treasure Island, Moby Dick, and the pirate tales Joyce's grandfather told her. From the mariner's compass that points due Nikolski that hangs around the narrator's neck, her declaiming "My name is unimportant" that echoes the opening "Call me Ishmal" of Melville's epic, and Dickner's deliberate use of water imagery throughout, the smell of the sea is omnipresent.

Instead of murderous whales, or buried treasure, our character's search for something less tangible, but equally valuable; a sense of purpose, a place to belong, and a life they can call their own. While neither Noah or Joyce had early lives that the majority of us have experienced, they are so well defined that we can easily identify with their desires for something other than what they were born into.

What Nicolas Dickner has created is a lovely way of telling a coming of age tale. He has taken ordinary experiences like making career choices, deciding upon where we are going to live, getting a job, and going to school, and imbued them with enough magic to make them delightful to read about, while keeping them real enough to be believable. We meet each character as they are on the cusp of adulthood, leaving their safe harbour, and bid them adieu ten years later as they are realizing their ambitions.

Nikolski is one of those rare gems of a story where each page is enjoyed because it is enjoyable to read. It is storytelling for the sake of telling a story, by a storyteller who takes obvious delight in weaving magic with words.

Nikolski can be purchased by Canadian readers directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Indigo Books.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/BPMaps/ Israel

    Getting Your Bearings
    (if you are north of the equator)

    In order to know where you are,
    The best way’s to find the North Star.
    Two stars in Big Bear
    Are pointing to where
    Polaris in Small Bear shines far.

    Around the Pole star in his tail swings
    The 12 constellations in grand rings.
    This looking at bears
    (If anyone cares)
    Is why we say “getting our bearings”.

    Israel “izzy” Cohen

  • Bob

    The unnamed narrator is male, just so you know.

    From the first page, in French:

    “Mon nom n’a pas d’importance.

    Tout débute au mois de septembre 1989, vers sept heures du matin.

    Je dors encore, recroquevillé dans mon sac de couchage…”