Christine Rehder Horne’s debut novel, Tarstopping, is a quasi-political thriller minus the politicians. It is a novel about environmental activism with Calgary as its epicenter. But if you’re searching for a simplistic rant about saving the world, you’ll be disappointed. In its place, Tarstopping offers a complex argument for a complex issue.
Middle-class Tim and Shannon find both their security and their presumptions threatened by the overnight arrival of environmental protesters in their affluent suburban neighbourhood. The protesters have converged on Calgary in response to a kidnapping. The messianic “Wendy and her Boys” are holding the family of an oil baron hostage in their own home. The ransom is simple. Shut down the Tar Sands.
Tim and Shannon’s friends, many of whom work in fields related to the oil industry, are angry and maybe even a little afraid. They argue vehemently and sometimes with vitriol about the best way to rid the city of its infestation. Within their small nuclear family, Tim and Shannon occupy seemingly flip sides of the argument. He is the director of a non-profit serving the city’s poor. She runs her own event-planning company catering to a corporate clientele. Their son, Armie -- a twenty-year-old university dropout – doesn’t know here he stands.
Enter Deke, Tim’s crusading brother, a blogger and environmentalist who quickly becomes the chronicler and unofficial voice of the Tarstoppers.
Tensions run high as the city becomes the locus of a movement that draws protesters from across Canada and around the world. At first, Tim and Shannon are unwitting observers. One of the largest encampments is established in the park and school grounds across the street. But soon even they are drawn in. Tim opens his home as a temporary shelter from a storm, and even as an ad hoc medical station, after things turn dark. Shannon, for her part, becomes the target of a mysterious stalker, parading as a journalist.
In response to the Tarstoppers another anomalous group forms at the edges of town. The Wildcatters are right-wing radicals and local rednecks looking to crack heads, initially. But things grow quickly out of hand once mob mentality sets in.
There is a lot of talk in the opening scene of this novel – perhaps a little too much exposition – as the author seeks a way to lay out the intricate setting, both temporal and psychological, which might realistically give rise to such a spontaneous congregation, as well as the incidents and beahviours which eventually flow from it. However, once the story gains traction – and it does – Tarstopping is a compelling and suspenseful read.
Horne approaches the thriller the way Henning Mankell approached to crime writing. Her protagonists are intelligent, refined, and well-educated. They are victim to marital issues and parental anxieties. Their jobs are at once fulfilling and, at times, all-consuming and problematic. However, Tim and Shannon do not check these lives at the door once the Tarstoppers arrive. If anything, the protest and its spinoffs play second fiddle to their more personal stories. As with Mankell’s detective, Kurt Wallander, both Tim and Shannon dispatch with the plot “in the midst of life – of work and family and the intrusion of tensions from the outside world.” They grapple with the events unfolding around them at the same time as they tackle their personal difficulties. And sometimes the two are indistinguishable.
As such, the ideological struggle taking place between the Tarstoppers and the Wildcatters is eventually mirrored in the lives of Tim and Shannon, their friends and family members. What is most frightening in this, is that their reactions are often no less polarized or violent. A close family friend says to Shannon, “The last thing those people have is balance. I wouldn’t have realized how many unbalanced people there are in the world.”
If there is a central theme in Tarstopping, this is it. We can marvel at our ability to come together and fight for what we believe, but sometimes we must recoil from the petty sight of our own self-interest and the extent to which we might go to protect it.
Tarstopping interweaves the personal and the global with a deft hand.
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