Written by MH Callway — If you ever head up into the woods of Northern Ontario, you might be warned to mind out for the Windigo. It’s spirit creature, part of the belief system of the Algonquin First Nations people in Canada and can take many forms – sometimes human, sometimes more like a hungry, half-man forest carnivore. It’s this mythological apparition that MH Callway lightly weaves into her wilderness noir novel, Windigo Fire.
The book opens with Danny Bluestone, a Native Canadian who normally works at a summer camp for kids, on an island in Red Dog Lake. Only now he’s babysitting a group of mainly foreign hunters who are out for bear. Tired of being treated like a slave by the rich, boorish and drunk visitors, he slips away and takes some magic mushrooms. When he heads back into the camp in the morning, however, he finds all the hunters dead, except for a fat American rocker called Ricky. A forest fire is being blown towards them, and each suspects the other of the slaughter.
Back on the mainland, a 10-year-old girl called Rachel is hating summer camp now that Danny, her favourite camp assistant, has left. She suspects the man running it of being a pervert and doesn’t want to be there anymore. However, she’s stuck in the town of Red Dog Lake until her father is through rehab back in Toronto. She sneaks off and hides in what was once a small local zoo. Logan, the former owner of the zoo is now a semi-vagrant drunk. He finds her and decides she has to be returned.
At a motel in Red Dog Lake, the fulcrum of the community, Logan has a confrontation with an Australian nicknamed Santa. Santa runs the fish camp which has displaced the zoo as the main tourist attraction, but really he’s selling drugs and trying to elbow aside everyone else with a stake in the town. This includes Corazon, the wide-hipped Filipino who owns the motel and is also a bush pilot. It was Santa who organised the hunting trip for the foreigners, but he has no idea that his guests have been killed. Then there’s Hendrix, another Australian with a very mean streak who is one wrung above Santa on the criminal ladder and is also connected to the canned hunt on the island.
Windigo Fire has no shortage of peculiar characters. We’ve also got Danny’s grandmother with her shamanistic skills, a female Ontario Provincial Police officer intent on busting Hendrix, Santa’s dopey elf Edgar, and a local population that likes to strip once a week in Corazon’s bar. Not all of them are entirely convincing – particularly the Australians – but they’re a varied and unexpected bunch given the North Ontario setting.
There’s plenty of action in this book too, with fights, chases, shootings and confrontations every few chapters. Soon the main mystery – who carried out the island massacre – fades into the background. While Danny and Ricky struggle to get off the island and try to find an old mining road through the woods, the rest of the characters have Hendrix and Santa to deal with. Once the cop is put out of action it falls to Logan and 10-year-old Rachel to sort things out and perhaps find Danny. Several episodes in the book stretch credulity a little too much, like Danny refusing to get into a canoe because a body was found in it, but instead entering a burning building to look for a phone. And, despite her age, Rachel can drive… apparently.
Yet you will find yourself turning the pages just to see what happens next. It might be a pulpy thriller, but one or two of the characters do have hidden depths and Callway handles the plot and what it has to reveal very well. Northern Ontario probably isn’t quite as peculiar or lawless as she paints it, however her depictions of the wilderness add to the atmosphere and that peppering of Native Canadian mythology adds a touch of extra intrigue.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars