Elevate Difference

Song Over Quiet Lake

In Song Over Quiet Lake, Sarah Felix Burns tells several intertwining stories of loss, love, and healing. The novel centers on an unlikely friendship between a young white woman, Sylvia, and a Tlingit elder, Lydie Jim. Both are students at the University of British Columbia, and they meet when Sylvia is assigned to be Lydie’s tutor. Although their relationship is formal at first, they gradually become deeply drawn into each other’s lives.

Sylvia learns the painful story of Lydie’s past: snatched away from her family at a young age and forced to attend a residential boarding school, Lydie has spent her entire life struggling to salvage enough dignity, rootedness, and love to take care of her own children in the face of a world determined to tear First Nations families apart. In return, Lydie learns about the tragedy in Sylvia’s past: the younger brother who was kidnapped as a toddler, leaving Sylvia’s mother frozen in time and grief, unable to love her two remaining children.

Sylvia and Lydie narrate most of the novel, but interspersed with their voices are the voices of the other characters in the web—Sylvia’s erstwhile boyfriend River, Lydie’s sons Jonah and Mitchell, Sylvia’s mother Miriam, and several others. Serving as an overlay to the personal stories, the broader historical narrative shows up in the voice of a priest who was once one of Lydie’s boarding school teachers. Well-intentioned but passive, the elderly priest relives his memories of complicity—his participation in the residential school system, his failure to stop a cruel practical joke that resulted in a young boy’s death, his refusal to demand that Canada grant asylum to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

All the characters in Song Over Quiet Lake are victims of the ravages of historical or personal tragedy, and they are victims of the intergenerational transmission of unresolved trauma. They are struggling to move forward with their lives, to emerge from past sorrows in order to build something new. They are also struggling to be able to give at least a little bit to each other, like the song (referenced in the novel’s title) that Lydie’s mother gave to Lydie as a young child. Even when Lydie returned from boarding school having lost her native language, with the result that she could no longer speak with her mother in words, they could still sing together and know they had each other’s love.

The novel’s dialogue is limp and stilted, and the prose as a whole lacks life. However, the characters are convincing and moving, and their complex, interwoven lives tell important stories about national guilt and communal resilience.

Written by: Ri J. Turner, April 7th 2010