Review: Late Nights on Air – Elizabeth Hay

2017: 75
4.5 of 5 stars
Published 2007

Late Nights On Air takes place in the northern Canadian city of Yellowknife in 1975-76. Television was about to come to the Northwest Territories and a hearing was ongoing to assess the impact of a gas pipeline to be built from the north down “south of 60”.  Radio, at the time, was one of the only connections to the outside world and a method of communication in much of the remote North.

A lot of people escape to the North to run from something in their lives or they come North looking for something, and we open with two women who have done just that, Dido and Gwen. They join broadcaster and temporary manager Harry, receptionist Eleanor and other employees of the small radio station such as Ralph, Eddy and Teresa. The book chronicles their lives, their pasts, their journeys including a physical one, a canoe trip that several of them take later in the book.

This novel won the Giller prize. It’s not a fast paced book, it’s a slow moving, character based story and I really liked it.  Some of the characters you will like and some you won’t. You will get a good feel for life in the remote parts of Canada where the radio communicates not just the outside world but passes on personal messages to folks that are listening of things like babies born, family deaths, and transportation delays.  I remember when the radio had “buy and sell” segments and would announce anniversaries if you wrote in and told them.

The canoe trip that four of the characters underwent north from Yellowknife was particularly wonderful to read. They had more or less replicated a real life journey by a man called John Hornby who did it in the 1920s, whereupon he attempted to spend a winter and he and his companions starved to death. You can read about him here.   I really got a sense of the North, the vast tundra, the wild life, herds of caribou, wolves, bears, the icy lakes even in July, uncertain weather, the utter desolate wildness, peace and beauty of it. That trip changed the characters that went on it, and they felt that difference the rest of their lives.

This book completes my Cross Canada reading challenge. I’ll post something with a round up of all my choices over the next week or so.

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