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Late Nights on Air

by Elizabeth Hay

It is the long golden summer of June, 1975, and in the one-traffic-light town of Yellowknife, Canada, not far south of the Arctic Circle, the local radio station has two new announcers. The station itself has one broadcasting booth, no larger than an ordinary bathroom, a two desk newsroom, and a pantry sized record library. In the basement, next to the washroom, Eddy Fitzgerald takes care of the technical equipment. Eleanor Drew, the receptionist, sits at her desk in the front window, for the building was once a shop. Ralph Cody does the book and arts reviews; he is also a keen photographer. Harry Boyd is the temporary manager. A silver haired treaty Indian, trim and immaculate and quiet, reads the news in Dogrib.

Gwen Symon is new. She has driven her old Volvo and trailer caravan 3000 miles from Toronto to Yellowknife, and wants a job with the radio station. She speaks quietly, wears no jewelry, and dresses simply in soft earth colours. "Camouflage" thinks Eleanor. After a false start on the News, where she fluffs her lines, Harry relegates her to the late night programme of music and general information.

Dido Paris is also new. She has come to Yellowknife in hiding from her marriage to a Canadian, whose father she had found irresistible. She rather hopes her father-in-law will "find" her in remote Yellowknife. Harry is in his little house on the edge of Back Bay when her voice comes over the radio for the first time. Harry, in his late forties, balding, bespectacled, highly intelligent, indiscreet, worldly, and with an alcohol problem, falls in love as he never has before. The staff at Radio Yellowknife are impressed by Dido's style and sophistication, and both men and women appreciate her beauty, her clothes, her absolute confidence on air. But Dido doesn't really know what she wants.

Ralph, Harry, Gwen and Eleanor are all Canadian, and have arrived in Yellowknife by happenstance. All of them have read George Whalley's biography The Legend of John Hornby . Hornby, the English explorer, who, like T.E. Lawrence, thrived on overcoming extremes of hardship, loneliness and hunger, and drew others to admire and follow him, died with his friends from starvation near the Thelon River. Ralph and Harry decide to canoe the lakes and the Thelon River, and to visit the spot where Hornby had built his cabin and died. Gwen and Eleanor, experienced canoeists, join them but none of them is really aware of the hardship in what they are about to undertake. None of them seriously considers it as life threatening. On the morning of June 17th, 1977, they load their canoes and packs into a float plane and are flown to the uninhabited end of Great Slave Lake. By July 26th they have canoed and portaged the enormous distance to their final destination on Beverley Lake, where they are to spend their last night on the Barrens. The float plane is to pick them up the following day. In all those punishing weeks they have been where few have ever been, and where no help could reach them. They discover how beautiful and how harsh this dynamic wilderness can be, and how fragile the existence of the most ancient flora and fauna on earth in Canada's vast hinterland, The Eighth Wonder of the World.

Background to the book is the long-running inquiry concerning the huge natural gas pipeline which the federal government and corporate wealth are planning. It will rip open the Yukon, threatening all forms of life in the virgin tundra, for none of it, neither human nor animal, will be spared the intrusion and interference that would inevitably come with such violation.

LATE NIGHTS ON AIR is not just an exciting and deeply interesting new novel. It is an anthem to Canada, and Canadians, the Barren Lands, outposts like Yellowknife, and to radio.

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