Hooker & Brown. Jerry Auld. Brindle & Glass, 2009. 240 pages. Paperback. $19.95 (Canadian).
So few mountaineering novels exist that it feels wrong to make generalizations from such a small sampling. Nonetheless, Hooker & Brown is more ambitious than most. This is a serious literary novel that tells the story of its first-person narrator, known to us as Rumi, the Ruminant, not after the “Sufi poet of love,” but because as he begins his season of working trail crew he appears to his co-workers as a deer in the headlights. The book is organized by the seasons and Rumi climbs in all four, the climbs being part of the structure that supports his quest for self-understanding.
The novel takes its title from the mythical peaks, Hooker and Brown, “observed” by David Douglas during his early 19th-century exploration of the Rockies as the highest peaks on the continent. By 1902 the search was given up, but Rumi, enamored of the history of exploration and of the idea of blank spaces on the map, seems to want to will the peaks into being. Early on, Rumi’s glimpse of a peak hidden in the clouds arouses his curiosity and desire and leads him on the path to the legendary peaks, as well as the actual rock and ice of Mt. Assiniboine. As he proceeds throughout the year, this is just one of many quests he undertakes; he also climbs more, works the trail crew, deliberates whether to return to graduate studies in geology in the city or surrender to the mountain life. He also pursues, but not very aggressively, the Interpreter, a young woman who longs for a small mountain lake, as Rumi longs for Hooker and Brown.
Rumi’s fascination with early 19th-century explorers is passed along to readers through journal excerpts of David Thompson, David Douglas, Arthur Coleman, and Norman Collie. Rumi also tells stories of these to the Interpreter, who likes her history in story form. No small part of this books charm comes from its respect for this history and Rumi’s deeply felt connection to it: “I want to follow Norman Collies’ path. Collie followed Arthur Coleman, who followed old Indian maps. Coleman found the pass but no mountains fitting the descriptions of Hooker and Brown.” And from an earlier observation: “Coleman and I are connecting…. [He] wandered out into the wilderness—an impulse that strikes me as boyish and uncomplicated. That’s the life I want.”
Rumi’s travels (and Auld’s—doubtless this is writing of the kind that blurs the fiction/ nonfiction boundary) create a wonderfully, deeply felt sense of the Canadian Rockies. Many of the places he describes I know from experience and from reading, and I found myself cross- referencing one of my favorite guidebooks, Sean Dougherty’s Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies. Auld’s story, as a story of place, so lovingly and accurately evokes those mountains that I found myself wanting to follow Rumi as he follows the explorers.
The book opens and closes with descriptions of climbs, and there are more in between. There is never a doubt that Auld knows exactly of what he speaks, but better yet is that he gives it to us fresh: it’s familiar, but we never saw it in quite this way. For the author of a book so filled with history and topography (in other words, it’s discursive), Auld has a very light touch— Rumi’s story and his voice carry us through. The book will appeal particularly to those of us who have struggled to find balance between the siren call of the mountains and the traditional adult worlds of schooling and careers; in other words, to all of us.