North of Smokey.


416 pages
ISBN 978-1-897009-23-9
DDC C813'.6




Reviewed by Matt Hartman

Matt Hartman is a freelance editor and cataloguer, running Hartman Cataloguing, Editing and Indexing Services.


Cape Breton fiction has clearly become a growing concern. Robert Caverhill Jones published his A Handful of Coins in 2008 (Shoreline), and Douglas Arthur Brown’s Quintet (Key Porter Books) appeared the same year, both set in Cape Breton. Now the island’s David Doucette has provided further proof that this rocky, saltwater region of Eastern Nova Scotia provides fertile enough soil for writers to plant quality Canadian fiction. Doucette (who also plays music in local bands) has written a wonderfully evocative novel of 415 pages, full of tight imagery, rich dialect and descriptions, and a brave and heartbreaking plotline full of loves and losses.

North of Smokey is the author’s second novel. His first, Strong at the Broken Places (Nimbus 2001) won the Dartmouth Book Award for fiction. The novel is set in the Great Depression but its action extends to the 1960’s. Frank, Clifford, William, and Grace are children of Adrian and Jessie Curtis. Frank, the youngest son, goes hunting and, in a horrific accident, shoots himself in the arm. Doucette’s powers of narrative description take over here: “All was numb. He balled up the hand of the bad arm and, tenderly as he could, put its fist inside a pocket while seawater yet drained from him like a cold-water faucet easing to close. The arm was dead, deadweight.”


The 14 year-old boy makes it home. To say he loses the arm is to give nothing of the story away, since the accident occurs in the first few chapters, and what follows is what the story is really about: Frank’s adventures as champion arm-wrestler, his battles with alcohol and drugs, and, finally, his return home to Ingonish and what is left of his family. This is a novel remarkable in its ability to capture the cadences of Cape Breton speech, as well as the physical essence of the place: “The village pushed through the frozen season,” says Doucette. “And the month of May kept its promise: to ease snow back up the mountain, to bring down in rills, chill waters falling.” Highly recommended.




Doucette, David., “North of Smokey.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 30, 2024,