My neighbour in King Edward Bay, Brian Thomas-Peter, has written a deeply moving and engrossing historical novel, The Kissing Fence, published by Caitlin Press just last month.
The history that shapes The Kissing Fence is the Doukhobor experience in B.C., beginning in the 1950s and continuing to leave its mark on contemporary lives in Vancouver.
Brian recreates a pivotal moment in that history when the RCMP launches a raid on the resident Doukhobor community at Perry Siding in the Kootenays on Sept. 9, 1953.
Their crime was public nakedness, the tactic famously used by the Dukhobors to register their opposition to military service, to public schooling for their children, and many other pressures from the state. The Canadian government added public nudity to the criminal code in 1931 in reaction to a Doukhobor anti-conscription protest. The Doukhobors had fled religious persecution in Russia and come to Canada because they were promised by the government of the time the freedom to live according to their religious beliefs.
In the course of the raid, the naked singing adults are brutally clubbed, arrested, and transported to prison. Their children are rounded up and taken to a repurposed tuberculosis sanitorium in New Denver where they are schooled. The “kissing fence” of the title is the chain-link fence through which Doukhobor parents on rare visiting days could kiss their children.
Into this scene of violence, Gerry Flanagan arrives: a cop with a conscience who is appalled by the raid he is required to join. In the commotion, he allows two children to escape to the forest. Throughout the novel, Flanagan is the only humane official voice. His instinctive resistance of the mindless oppression of the children is a relief from the inhumanity of his counterparts.
Nina, one of the children Flanagan shields from a succession of police round-ups, emerges as a key character. When finally captured and sent to the New Denver school, Nina is alienated by her suspicious peers but she wins their trust by her determined opposition to the school authorities. Her bravery is matched by Pawel’s, another child who emerges as a leader. Both characters have so much promise but their lives are disrupted by violence and divisiveness within and outside the Doukhobor community.
The historical sections of the novel are paralleled by scenes set in contemporary Vancouver. William is a shifty character who runs a successful but marginally legal small business on the North Shore. His late-night cycle ride through Stanley Park to liaise with a shady business partner ends in an encounter with an owl and a trip to the ER. These parts of the novel move at a brisk pace as William’s business ventures and personal morality spiral out of control. As the novel proceeds, the parallel sections gradually merge.
Small and not so small acts of resistance run through the novel – some of them life- and dignity-sustaining and some deeply destructive. The resistance always traces back to the rigid regulations and betrayals of local and federal governments.
Brian’s characters are amalgams of people he researched and heard about in his interviews with New Denver survivors. He says there is evidence to suggest that a small number of RCMP officers were sickened by their role in these events.
The Kissing Fence is a remarkably gripping novel. I was grateful to it for its moving depiction of a shameful and forgotten period in B.C. history and for its thriller-like pace that held my attention at a time when our unfolding daily news offers much to escape from.
See more information: caitlin-press.com/our-books/kissing-fence-the/