Essay On: Broken Ground By Jack Hodgins Essay, Research Paper
In Jack Hodgins latest novel, Broken Ground, the inhabitants of the small forest community of Portuguese Creek are deeply affected by its extreme conditions. Matthew Pearson, a local farmer and former soldier, has his life utterly transformed from living in Portuguese Creek. For Tanner Pearson, Matthew’s ten year old son, living in Portuguese Creek has nothing but negative consequences. Lastly, Charlie MacKintosh, Tanner’s friend, is adversely affected by his time spent in the harsh wilderness of the settlement. Portuguese Creek touches the lives of all who dwell within its untamed heart.
Matthew Pearson is a typical farmer in the wild soldier’s settlement of Portuguese Creek, who, like many others, becomes involved in some atypical events. He comes to the settlement with his wife, Maude, whom he marries shortly after the first World War , and fathers two children. He, like many others, is filled with both awe and terror toward the land he is expected to settle, as is proven when he states that
When [he] first set eyes on [the] logged-off stretch of second-growth timber [he was] expected to turn into [a farm], [he was] shaken with the extravagant beauty of the green Pacific world. Snow-peaked mountains, thick underbrush high as [his] waist, and salt water so close [he] could smell it. But… [he was] scared off right away by the unexpected. Forest fires, mountain lions, and rain. (Book 1 Chapter 2 P.17)
The harshness of his surroundings also has adverse effects on his sanity. At some points he loses touch with reality and is thrown into a memory of the war. Every time it is caused by either the absolute beauty, or terrible viciousness of nature. In chapter thirteen he takes a midnight horseback ride through the wilderness, and is struck by the elegance of his surroundings. As he rides he notes an abandoned logging building that was left behind after the company decided the area was too uncivilized. Upon seeing it he notices how “[the] building [brings] to mind a shelled and ransacked village church in France, a rubbled space of stone block walls that [stands] amongst abandoned houses behind a part of the line where [he had] fought at two different stages in the war.” (Book 1 Chapter 13 PP 103-104) Immediately after, he is plunged into a flashback of his service, and ends up screaming and trying to dodge imaginary shells. During the climax of the novel, a forest fire breaks out and endangers the entire village. He tells his family to evacuate the house and head for the nearest town, and proceeds to help other villagers. When he returns later to see if his house has been destroyed, he finds his family still trying to evacuate their precious belongings. By this time the fire begins to engulf the building, and Matthew desperately attempts to aid his family. He loads his young daughter, Elizabeth, onto the horse drawn carriage, and goes back for his wife and son. After he saves his wife and son, the horse is so frightened by the fire that it bolts straight into it, carrying Elizabeth with it. Matthew and his family watch in helpless horror as she is consumed in flame. Matthew, braver then ever, runs straight into the flames in a desperate attempt to save her, but only ends up placing his own life at risk. The horror of the burning forest and falling tree limbs all around him sends him into another horrific flashback where he believes he is getting gassed by German forces. He runs through the flames for what seems like hours, and collapses in a heap on the doorstep of the abandoned lumber mill. His last memory is that “[he] cannot even protect [his] family from harm. Dear God, [he] cannot do a single thing alone!” (Book 1 Chapter 33 P182) In the following years, Matthew goes through several bouts of depression, alienating his family and friends. Both the savageness and beauty of the settlement simultaneously transforms his life before his eyes, and sends him back into his terrible past.
Tanner Pearson’s life is changed even more drastically then his unfortunate father, as he is sent spiralling into a life of crime and emotional instability. He hates Portuguese Creek from day one, because of the daily hazards, lack of entertainment, and hard labour that his father requires of him. The first traumatic event in his life is the death of his friend’s father whhile trying to destroy a tree stump using dynamite. This makes him realize the repercussions of living in such a harsh environment. The major factor effecting his future development is witnessing the death of his sister, Elizabeth, in the forest fire. After this event he goes through serious denial, screaming at his friend Charlie that
She wasn’t [his] sister, really. If [Charlie] tell[s] anyone else, [he will] kill [him]. She was adopted. She was a war orphan. [His parents] told [him] not to tell anyone, not even her. They wanted her to think she was part of the family. (Book 3 Chapter 1 P230)
Perhaps if Tanner could receive the emotional support he needs, his problems would end. Unfortunately, his father becomes, as Charlie would say, “an empty shell of a man.” (Book 3, Chapter 2, P 329), and his mother is too preoccupied with taking care of his father. His psychological problems continue to worsen, to the point where he runs away from home and lives alone in the forest. It is ironic that he chooses to live in the same environment that ruined his life. He becomes involved in all sorts of criminal activity, from robbing trains to bootlegging. The dire surroundings this small boy is subjected to results in totally corrupting his mind, while at the same time, destroying his fragile spirit.
Charlie MacKintosh, though just as affected by his surroundings as Matthew Pearson and his son, turns the tragedy in his life into something positive. He suffers just as much, if not more, than the other villagers in Portuguese Creek, but never lets it get to him. In the first chapter he and his father go off on a routine “stumping” quest in the forest (stumping is the term used to describe the blowing up of tree stumps with dynamite in order to clear the land), and his father is obliterated by his own explosives while Charlie watches in horror. Charlie is saddened by the occurrence, but looks upon it as a learning experience. He remembers all the good things his father did in his life. In the second chapter he reflects on his father’s life, recalling that
[His] dad never hurt a thing. Not even in the War, where he delivered letters to the soldiers at the front. He never fired a shot. That’s why he hadn’t really left [Charlie, his] Mother said. Goodness was something that couldn’t be killed. Dad’s goodness was still around if [one] looked for it. [Charlie] wasn’t an orphan, [he] said. [He] was Charlie Mackinaw. [One] can’t kill goodness with a stupid old stack of stumping powder. It would take a whole lot more then that to kill [his] dad. (Book 1 Chapter 7 P 52)
Charlie also witnesses Matthew Pearson at his worst, bandaged and burnt after the fire. Instead of becoming violent and angry, like Tanner, Charlie offers Matthew his support and friendship. The final book in this novel deals with life sixty years after the fire, and describes how everyone’s life turns out. Charlie, instead of being totally ruined like Tanner, dedicates his life to helping the community. He becomes the editor of the local newspaper, and a historian on what becomes known as “The Great Fire Of ?22″. Charlie takes all the negative aspects of his life in the forested settlement, and channels them into positive achievements.
The cruel environment that Portuguese Creek has to offer changes the lives of all those who are around it. Even though each resident of the settlement is affected differently, the one constant is that their lives are forever altered by the wild land.
Hodgins, Jack. Broken Ground. Copyright (c) 1998 by Jack Hodgins, Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Dada, Vancouver, Britich Columbia, Canada.