An ex-cop with a troubled past. A close-knit lakeside community with close-guarded secrets. The suspicious death of a young woman.
These are all the makings of a good noir story, but in W. D. Valgardson’s hands, they combine to become a mythic blend of Icelandic history in Canada and a story of death and rebirth.
In creating the fictional town of Valhalla, Valgardson draws from his own history; he grew up in Gimli. “I’ve returned there every summer since 1957 except one,” he says. Valgardson now calls Victoria, B.C., home, where he taught creative writing at the University of Victoria for 30 years.
Valgardson is the award-winning author of novels such as Gentle Sinners and The Girl with the Botticelli Face. His most recent book was What the Bear Said: Skald Tales from New Iceland.
In Valhalla’s Shadows tells the story of retired Mountie Tom Parsons, a recent arrival to Valhalla, who discovers the body of a young Indigenous woman on the beach.
The RCMP make a cursory investigation, but Tom, already viewed with suspicion by the locals thanks to his status as an outsider and his fortuitous purchase of a property some had their eye on, makes his own inquiries to piece together what happened.
Tom was the starting point for what grew into a nearly 500-page novel, full of gripping characters both quirky (a nervous Englishman who carves wooden birdhouses) and mythic (three elderly sisters with prophetic powers named after the three Norns of Norse mythology).
“Tom Parsons appeared one day and demanded to be heard,” Valgardson says. “As I listened to him, other characters entered the narrative.”
The locals – trappers, fishers, local entrepreneurs, both non-Indigenous and Indigenous – depend on seasonal or under-the-table work to survive over winter. The rich yacht-owners live alongside them in the summer, but in a different world.
Tom knows all too well that an Indigenous girl’s death isn’t going to get the same investigation as a high roller’s would.
“As a kid and teenager, I travelled to places like Riverton, Arborg, Hnausa, Arnes, Fraserwood, Winnipeg Beach,” Valgardson says.
“All these places are distinct, but structures of rank, prestige, power, weakness, are much the same. In Gimli and the area, of course, there was always the gap between the locals and the summer people, the campers. There still is. I learned early to admire people for simply getting up every morning in the face of bad weather, unemployment, poor
fishing, disappointment. I also learned about people’s ambitions and limitations.”
“Time and again, I’ve observed people who, in a sense, die and are reborn.” Valgardson
Tom works in Valhalla as a handyman, but in a larger sense he’s trying to build a life for himself. He suffers damage both physical and psychological as a result of a vehicle accident in the line of duty that put an end to his police career, not to mention his marriage.
Like a Viking warrior killed in battle, he finds a new life in Valhalla. But it’s no peaceful afterlife. Not with a mystery to solve.
“Time and again, I’ve observed people who, in a sense, die and are reborn,” Valgardson says. “The old myths, whether Christian or pagan, are often about this dying and being reborn.
“The rebirth is never easy.”