Two Trails Narrow
Destiny, and its ways of making lives intersect, is an important theme in Algonquin author Stephen McGregor’s debut novel. Though Two Trails Narrow unfolds mainly on the blood-stained battlefields of World War II, the story begins in Spaniards Bay on Lake Ontario. Here, the author exposes the brutality of Canada’s residential school system in the mid-1920s. Readers are introduced to teens Ryman McGregor and Abraham Scott, two Algonquin Métis who share a strong rebellious streak – the very characteristic needed to orchestrate a successful escape from St. Xavier’s Residential School, an institution designed for the assimilation of Native or “half-breed” children into white society.
Free from St. Xavier’s, Ryman and Abraham part ways, bidding each other farewell as they return to their respective homes in North Bay, Ontario, and Maniwaki, Quebec. Yet life’s twists ensure the ultimate reunion of these kindred spirits.
Ryman’s resistance to authority attracts a series of predicaments, eventually – and ironically – landing him in the army. The very same attitude that has repeatedly gotten him into trouble now makes him an exceptionally effective soldier and leader. His resilience and fearlessness in the face of extreme adversity quickly win him a hero’s status and higher rank. His unconventional leadership style turns out to be just what is needed to motivate a group of underdog soldiers to successfully undertake a series of seemingly impossible missions.
Meanwhile, Abraham follows in the footsteps of his ancestors and becomes an expert trapper and marksman. He accepts a contract that tragically alters his life, due to a “shapeshifter” wolverine called “le Diable.” He enlists in the military, where he, too, quickly rises through the ranks, applying his outstanding hunting skills as a sniper and contributing to the liberation of occupied territory.
Two Trails Narrow is informative, recalling one of humanity’s darkest nights of the soul, while shedding light on lesser-known aspects of this period, such as the sacrifices made by Canada’s indigenous peoples. Although McGregor’s prose sometimes feels weighted by awkward transitions and banal language, the author establishes enough narrative drive to keep the reader turning the pages. At times it is hard to tell whether the author is trying to include too many, or fails to include enough, details. The novel examines the War through the perspective of a multitude of characters, many of whose lives criss-cross in ways suggesting significance, yet these supposed synchronicities are not fully explored.
The complete senselessness of war is perhaps best rendered in the sections recounted from the perspective of the field hospital nurses. One can’t help but be moved by the courage and utter selflessness of the Canadian women who cared for Allied and German soldiers alike. In their close contact with the wounded, they recognized the soldiers’ common humanity, as well as the monstrous manipulation of the German teenagers who were “taken away from their mothers as boys and indoctrinated to think of themselves as ‘Aryan supermen.'”
Swimming against a grotesque tide of orchestrated killing, these women – the keepers of life – were perhaps the greatest rebels of all. mRb