Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: Survival in High Park

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer's new book is All the Broken Things. Here, she writes about the space between survival as metaphor and fact, and ponders the origin of myth. 

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Book Cover All the Broken Things

'Soldier Man found him in the bush, and disappeared, and found him again. Now he stood near the shelter Bo was building on an east-facing slope under the canopy of a young forest in the northeast corner of the park. Bo used deadfall and pine boughs he’d cut from trees farther south, decorated the lean-to with bits of cloth people had left or lost in the park.

“Make it with confidence, boy, and no one will see it. You try to hide, they’ll find you, I swear.” Soldier Man crouched down, trying to coax Bear with a treat.'

from All The Broken Things

In my new novel, when the character named Bo hides with his bear cub in Toronto's High Park, he is structuring this decision around a mythic story line. The reader would do well to think that Bo is confused and has gone, like so many characters before him, including Iron John and Orpheus and Little Red Riding Hood and Gilgamesh, to an otherworld or forest-place, a space of wildness, on the margins, where society cannot understand him, and where he can be tested and find courage and humanity. That is how the author might want such a fictional geography to be read. When Bo runs into the constructed wilds of High Park, he is coming closer to nature, to his own nature, particularly, and the place represents the only possible space for deep transformation. In that sense, if All The Broken Things is a coming-of-age novel, Bo can also be said to come of age inside the tumultuous wild space of his adolescence, the forest standing in for that, as well. But novels play in the real, too, or pretend to play in the real, and the real defies metaphor. It simply is.

Kuitenbrouwer High Park Dwelling

This is an image of a structure in High Park in which, at the time of writing, someone is right now living. It is currently -20 Celsius in Toronto, with a wind chill that makes it effectively much colder. The structure is a mish-mash of found supplies, including plastic, corrugated aluminum, planking, and doors. I imagine the insulation value of the walls of this structure to be negligible, and that body heat will never make it adequately warm inside. This is a structure in which someone might not survive long enough to transform, in which a journey to the underworld might be permanent. I wondered when I saw it whether the occupant chose to live in High Park, unconsciously, seeking out the mythic. This is a lofty, privileged thought, of course, but my wondering was a chicken/egg query.

Does the mythic proceed from the lived experience or does lived experience drive myth?

Either way, the next question is always, “To what extent do we narrate our lives and to what extent is the fact of our long history of story and storytelling inflecting they way we live and behave inside our lives?” 

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the author of the novels Perfecting and The Nettle Spinner, which was a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, and the short-story collection Way Up, which won the Danuta Gleed Award and was a finalist for the ReLit Award. Kuitenbrouwer's short fiction has been published in Granta,The Walrus, Numéro Cinq, Joyland and Storyville. She is an award-winning instructor with the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies.

January 16, 2014
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