One Book: The Moving Shoreline

The docks are two hundred and forty feet out from the lake’s original shoreline. Landfill pushed everything forward. Buildings erupted out of it like weeds. The city, walking on water.

– p.2, Consolation (Anchor Canada, 2007), by Michael Redhill

As a child I wondered if subway cars were places. The kinds of things that make places out of spaces happen in subway cars, conversations are enjoyed or endured, bonds are forged and broken, departures are cause for relief and sorrow. Yet a subway car lacks the fixity of a house, or a movie theatre, or a lookout point. Most places can be returned to in twenty years time for a reminder of the moving experience that planted the spot in one’s mind. The place is a place by dint of the continuity between its present and its past. History makes a place as much as its claim to one unchanging point on the globe.

In Consolation, Michael Redhill’s characters try to locate a nineteenth-century shipwreck buried in the kilometre-wide strip of Toronto that grew like a thick skin on the original shoreline over the last hundred and fifty years. Their search for aquatic history beneath the ground directs my question about the placeness of the subway cars at the shoreline extension. Does this site lack the historical weight of neighborhoods built on older ground? How do we relate differently to a location knowing that it has only briefly been land? The buried ship is a topsy-turvy and ironic symbol that represents the changes and strange reversals that the passage of time can bring to a place.

For a spot to turn from water into land is a dramatic shift, one that Redhill uses to suggest the great unlikelihood, the unexpectedness of all true stories about places. History makes almost anything possible in retrospect. What seems like a massive physical shift in a site over time may be slight in comparison to emotional alterations among its inhabitants. Redhill asks us therefore to consider not only the official history that physical excavation of space can reveal, but the discoveries to be made by delving into the archeology of place. Consolation itself performs this kind of investigation, as does its character David Hollis, who throws historical references to the wind so as to write a history not of what happened in his city, but of what might have happened, what perhaps should have happened, what could have happened. By shifting our expectations about how and where to look for evidence of the past, Consolation admonishes us to think of our urban history as space to be swum through, a story to be mined like shipwrecked treasure.

photo by Madam Ming