Jesse Ruddock - written in a style that somehow combines an easy-spoken blue collar minimalism with wordplay and lyricism. The oblique, hidden emotions of the characters are balanced in part by the ingenuity and playfulness of Ruddock’s language




Jesse Ruddock, Shot-Blue, Coach House Books, 2017.
excerpt
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Rachel is a young single mother living with her son, Tristan, on a lake that borders the unchannelled north – remote, nearly inhospitable. She does what she has to do to keep them alive. But soon, and unexpectedly, Tristan will have to live alone, his youth unprotected and rough. The wild, open place that is all he knows will be overrun by strangers – strangers inhabiting the lodge that has replaced his home, strangers who make him fight, talk, and even love, when he doesn't want to. Ravenous and unrelenting, Shot-Blue is a book of first love and first loss.

Shot-Blue is that rarest species, a genuinely wise novel.’ – Rivka Galchen

‘Jesse Ruddock understands the weight of things that cannot be said aloud. A sensitive book about lives lived at the edge of society, in the shadow of an idyllic panorama, given voice only in the silence of adolescence.’– Jenny Erpenbeck

‘Stunning and just so gracefully told. Ruddock’s landscape and characters are told by heart and her fierce and beautiful language makes you feel it.’– Naja Marie Aidt

The road was like a portage: an opening that lets you in but makes no promise to bring you out on another side. Maybe the road narrowed to a dead end or was blocked by a swamp raised by a beaver dam. Maybe it led to a place they weren't welcome. She walked through the cut slowly and stopped, her dark hair falling across her shoulders heavily, and Tristan imagined that she meant to let her hair sweep the ground as it did. Most boys would have run out to meet their mothers. But he knew he couldn't understand. She was always telling him,you can't understand everything.

Ruddock’s complex debut novel set in Canada’s north is a story of a tough but character-forming hardscrabble life and of the deep bonds and rivalries created among people who live together far away from urban civilization. In the first section, Rachel and her teenage son, Tristan, live out in the wilderness, determined to survive without help from anyone else. When Rachel doesn’t come home one day, Tristan continues to live alone for a time. In the second section, the land has been sold and Tristan has ended up back at his former home, now turned into a holiday lodge. He lives among strangers and works as a backwoods guide. He becomes closest to Tomasin, who also works there, and the relationship between them is tender, tragic, and perplexing. This poetically written book is full of riddles, of characters talking past each other and misunderstanding one another in the vein of a Shakespearean love tangle. Loneliness, the very human inability to communicate with one another in a way that reveals our deepest selves, is the point. The novel is a fine corrective to fiction that assumes that people are rational actors and that motive is straightforward or even discernible. Publishers Weekly

Poverty, youth, and longing collide on an isolated Canadian island in Ruddock's searing debut novel.
Rachel and her 11-year-old son, Tristan, are alone in Canada’s rugged north, working odd jobs when they can but most often isolating themselves on a small, wild island where Rachel’s father kept a hunting cabin. Trying to provide for her son, Rachel begins sleeping with local boatman Keb in exchange for money. After winter drives them to a town on a neighboring island, Rachel wanders too far from their small cabin and perishes in the cold, only being found when the ice on which she died thaws and she is washed to shore. This leaves Tristan alone in a harsh world that doesn’t show much compassion to the boy beyond getting him a job at a resort being built on the island he and his mother once called home. There, Tristan becomes just another nameless worker, all the while harboring a sense of loss for the place that was once his refuge. When a young girl named Tomasin arrives for the summer, she picks Tristan out and develops a crush that pushes both of them beyond their emotional limits. In haunting prose, the author has created a moving and tense look at what becomes of children when they aren’t or can’t be cared for and must fend for themselves. It explores the depths of human emotion and the limits we struggle to overcome.
A moving, lyrical novel that explores the emotional pain of hardship on children.Kirkus Reviews

‘Much like Winter’s Bone, Shot-Blue is written in a style that somehow combines an easy-spoken blue collar minimalism with wordplay and lyricism. The oblique, hidden emotions of the characters are balanced in part by the ingenuity and playfulness of Ruddock’s language.’
– Cleaver Magazine

‘[Ruddock] is talented, with a penchant for paradox and a yen for examining the backward logic that guides our daily anxieties.’Quill & Quire

In 2014, French “confinement artist” Abraham Poincheval spent thirteen days and nights living inside a hollowed-out bear carcass, restricting himself to a diet of worms, beetles, and honey. Through a succession of wacky and highly-publicized stunts, most of which have involved prolonged sojourns in perilously tight spaces, Poincheval has carved out a niche for himself in the Parisian art scene. The artist’s 2014 performance, In the skin of the bear, presented at Paris’s Museum of Hunting and Nature, drew inspiration from animal carcasses he encountered during a trek through the French Alps, the idea being to “become one” with the animal. Camped out inside the sterilized carcass, which had been fitted out with a system of tubes and cables for light, water, and waste disposal, Poincheval occupied his hours reading and live-streaming in his underpants. Last month, the artist performed his most recent piece, Stone, at the Palais du Tokyo in Paris, spending a full week entombed within a block of limestone. Although deliberately and even exultantly silly, Poincheval’s work raises interesting questions about how our sense of internal and external space—of where we end and the world begins—shapes our awareness.
Reading Canadian novelist Jesse Ruddock’s poignant début, I found myself thinking (again and again) of In the skin of the bear. A dark, elegiac exploration of interiority and traumatic consciousness, Ruddock’s Shot-Blue engages similar themes, troubling the distinction between inside and outside, between embodied selves and the surrounding world. Set on Canada’s sparsely-populated Arctic frontier, at a remote fishing outpost and summer resort on the fictitious Prioleau Lake, it is a novel of environmental and emotional extremes. Caught between the wilderness to the north and the suffocating insularity of their own rural, resource-poor community, characters are held hostage to one another’s moods and impulses. Tristan, an orphan in love with a domineering, older girl, is a willing captive, prepared to suffocate in exchange for a little warmth:
He felt close to a fire where the air is eaten up. He wanted to get closer, to gather the locks of flame, the coals, and the blackened spit below. He would pick up the smoke and carry it.
Tristan can choose to stay and burn or, like his mother, escape into the wilderness and freeze there. Examining the forces of isolation that prey upon an impoverished community’s most vulnerable members—a single mother, an orphan boy, a lonely teenage girl with low self-esteem—Ruddock is deeply interested not only in our sense of where we end and the external world begins, but in intersubjective boundaries: our sense of where we end and others begin.
The novel’s first section chronicles single mother Rachel’s struggle to care for her young son Tristan in a town where resources are scarce and sympathies scarcer. Courted by a brooding preacher’s son, a man “like poured concrete,” she quits her low-wage job at a local hotel, moving herself and her son to her father’s hunting cabin on an otherwise uninhabited island, far down the lake. Aside from the occasional visits of boatman Keb, with whom Rachel exchanges sex for money, mother and son live in near-total isolation. The intimacy Ruddock crafts is both sprawling and austere. Like two planets held together in orbit, Rachel and Tristan share the same room, meals, and routine but remain wholly mysterious to one another. A constant source of wonder and speculation, Tristan is the only fresh thing in his mother’s life, the only thing she is still curious about: hovering over him in the dark, she listens to him half-talking, half-singing in his sleep. She wonders why he doesn’t sing more and why he insists on sleeping on the floor (and not in the bed beside her). Tristan has no friends, no relatives, no teachers. Aside from Keb, his mother is the only person he knows—his only point of reference. As Keb’s daughter Marie observes, “he belonged to his mother, who kept her hand in his hair.” One evening it occurs to Rachel that “maybe she was the reason he never sang out. Maybe she was what he needed protection from.” She struggles to separate his life from her own, to give him more of what we all need and, by and by, regret: space. One winter afternoon, after receiving some troubling news, she sets off on a hike to clear her head. Losing her way in the snow, she wanders out onto the frozen lake and perishes. That winter, Tristan is forced to fend for himself, but when the lake thaws and Rachel’s body washes ashore, Keb the boatman comes to take him into custody.
In the second part of the novel, set two years after Rachel’s death, Tristan is living on his mother’s island again, but circumstances there have changed: the little cabin has been razed and a vacation resort erected in its place. Paid in food and board, Tristan works at the resort as a manual laborer and “guide.” His long hair and soft demeanor make him a target for the other teenage workers, although Tristan mostly avoids them. Content in his own company, he spends his free time alone by the shore. But Tristan’s solitude is shattered when the new kitchen worker, Tomasin, sets her sights on him, laying claim to him and forcing her way into his life. Slowly, he begins to grow accustomed to her feral presence, wanting to trust her and, for the first time, to tell his own story. Unfortunately for Tristan, Tomasin is not interested in who he thinks he is.
Do you know what you are? She asked…
What?
Mine.
As a child, she had opened a “Grasshopper Hospital,” but when she could find no sick grasshoppers to attend to, she caught healthy grasshoppers instead, tearing off their legs before playing nurse to them on a slab of pitted brick. Here, Ruddock demonstrates her talent for drafting the shapes and contours of an entire personality in just one brief anecdote. Suffice to say, Tristan does not fare much better than Tomasin’s grasshoppers. At her behest, he boxes with a boy twice his size, sustaining a concussion and a broken nose before falling into a day-long coma.
Following this incident, Tomasin’s interest in Tristan wanes as she gravitates more and more toward the alluring and predatory Stella, a young actress vacationing at the resort. In one fantastic, memorable sentence, Ruddock manages to capture not just Stella’s character, but a whole way of being in the world: “more subduing than a migraine, she somehow became whatever you were doing.” Stella takes pleasure in toying with Tomasin—treating her like a servant, bathing in her attentions, slowly wearing down her defenses. Tomasin’s fascination with Stella culminates in a sexual encounter with Stella’s twenty-three-year-old boyfriend and the thirteen-year-old Tomasin struggles to come to terms with the experience:
this feeling: like her own blood was scratching against the walls of her veins, long scratches trying to tell her something: I’m trying to tell you, her blood was saying. I’m telling you, it said.
But this is no crisis or turning point for Tomasin; it is merely another thing that happened. Because, in Shot-Blue, trauma does not register as an isolated incident, but as a condition. A chronic affliction of the senses, the body crying out from its own depths: I’m trying to tell you, her blood was saying. I’m telling you, it said. Like a droning in the ears, sickeningly low and constant, trauma is constitutive of characters’ experience of the world. For the novel’s young protagonists, adolescence is a fundamentally traumatic experience, unfolding as a sequence of emotional and physical violations at once thrilling and scarring.
Also bent on self-destruction, and in many ways a foil for Tomasin, Rachel is physically marked by her own teenage trauma: her face rent by a long, ragged scar like “a wave stuck in breaking…like ground dug up by a dog.” For the sake of her son, who is her only tether, she curbs her self-destructive impulses. Still, even as an adult, her experience of the world is traumatic—defined by friction, a gradual wearing away:
If she were a boat, she would scrape the dock and from the scraping shiver and threaten the only threat she had: to finally break.
Rachel’s trauma is not existential but environmental. Rural poverty shapes her body and mind to its grinding necessities. Rowing from island to island, her one, consuming thought is of securing money or food. But in both cases, trauma is a psychic state: a generalized dysphoria—“nothing felt quite as it should”—that distorts characters’ perceptions of the surrounding world. As subtly pervasive as nuclear radiation, their moods seep into the novel’s settings, infecting ordinary scenes of nature with muted violence:
The bass were stuffed from hunting in full sun. If you managed to catch one, its fight would lag and it would rise to the surface throwing up wan, shredded, half-digested minnows, little pieces of flesh that looked like they’d been run through a washing machine.
Ruddock’s prose is saturated with spatial-corporeal metaphors that weaken or collapse the boundaries between bodies, their attendant sensations and surrounding space. Trauma is etched into the novel’s DNA: external space is not neutral or empty, but excruciatingly alive and always on the verge. The sun is a “skinned-knee”; or, for Marie, it is a far graver injury: a hole gouged in the sky, bleeding heat. Hearing a gunshot echo in the distance, she decides in a moment of poetic inspiration that the sky is shot-blue. Boatman Keb must “tourniquet” a mounting sense of dread. And in one hallucinatory passage: “the sun slipped its fingers in between the treeline and sky to split a space open like the gills of a fish, showing the red breathing ribbons.” Like Poincheval, Ruddock believes in the vitality of “dead” matter: rocks, animal remains, and even household objects are anthropomorphized, instilled with “thing-power.” The novel is littered with found objects that seem to vibrate with life—fishing lures, a bit of driftwood shaped like a bird’s wing, a dead hummingbird, or the hand mirror Tristan inherits from his mother:
It was a rearview mirror snapped out of its shell, something she’d done as a teenager after her face was hurt and she wanted to see. She’d seen it shining on a wrecked car at the garbage dump, a cleared field near town that was scattered with trash and the bristly bodies of hungry black bears.
The passage demonstrates the intensity and disperseness of Ruddock’s attentions: the mirror flickers with associations, referring from sign to sign—to a car to a dump to a field and finally to “the bristly bodies of hungry black bears.” For Rachel, it is a cherished, traumatic artifact, while for Tristan it is almost a talismanic object—in life, his mother had forbidden him from touching the mirror. After her death, without knowing how it came into her possession, he will hold it up to his own battered face to assess the damage wrought by an older boy’s fists: his nose crushed flat against a face so bruised and swollen that he can no longer recognize himself. A vital, unresolved thing, Rachel’s mirror exceeds even these meanings. The narrative that collects around it also instills it with a life, a character, all its own—connecting it, in an almost miraculous turn, to the bodies of starving bears.
Just as the novel’s world is awash with human feelings, worldly things embed themselves in the psyches of its characters. Late in the novel, Tristan leaves Tomasin a “gift” rolled up in cloth: a dead hummingbird. She flings it away in disgust, but Marie, who is in love with Tristan, retrieves the bird, temporarily interring it in her sock and underwear drawer. As a consequence, “she would for the rest of her life, associate the smell of fresh laundry with a little bit of death.” The political theorist Jane Bennett posits an “out-side” populated by what she calls vibrant matter: “This out-side can operate at a distance from our bodies or it can operate as a foreign power internal to them, as when we feel the discomfort of nonidentity.” Trauma is an invasion of the inner world by the outer that casts bodies and selves into doubt. In the moments before her death, it does not occur to Rachel that she is dying: “She felt no pain, only doubt. She doubted her knees, doubted her hands.”  For Tristan—who wonders why his name is something anyone can say, even those who would hurt and torment him— nonidentity is a comfort, a refuge. He seeks the feeling out, withdrawing to the lakeshore to meditate:
If he sat long enough, following each wave as it rolled forward and broke, bristled and dissolved, he forgot himself, he disappeared, and there was only the water wide across and deep at shore. Tristan liked that feeling. It was not like falling asleep. It was not like dreaming.
Abraham Poincheval hoped that, by confining himself to a bear for two weeks, he might induce a similar state of self-forgetfulness. The whole project was staged around this desire: “to experience becoming animal.” The term, borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari, implies “a fascination with the outside.” It describes the movement toward nonidentity, contingent upon the loss of social identity, or “face.” A fable of isolation and belonging, Shot-Blue is, in a sense, all about becoming-animal: the unravelling of social identities and selves. As Stella observes: “we do what we do, we do it to those who get too close to our animal souls.” There is something ancient, primal and almost biblical about the story Shot-Blue tells. Rachel—whose face is riven by a deep scar—is neglected, excluded and finally driven from the fold, “disappear[ing] into dry air.” The novel’s last scene mirrors her death on the lake when another character drowns there, this time in late summer.
Gazing into the lake’s outer distances, Tristan is tempted to climb down into the water and swim all the way out, but, rest assured, it won’t be Tristan who follows his mother into the “deep water.” As Stella observes, he has that rarest and most enviable of qualities, as rare in adults as in children and far better to have than confidence, or even kindness: self-possession. Indeed, this is a deeply self-possessed novel. Powerful and assured in its voice, it knows exactly where it wants to go and it gets there on the strength of its extraordinary language. Softening the distinction between poetic and narrative forms, the novel takes on the experimental logic of performance art. In other words, Ruddock builds up the conditions for nonidentity in and through language. Like the waves of Prioleau Lake, her hypnotic prose rolls, breaks, bristles, dissolves—folding its readers into an inexorable tide of feeling. With sparse dialogue and very little in the way of conventional devices, Shot-Blue is not driven by plot, but by a deeper, shrewder intuition. It is the novel’s emotional atmospheres that seem to give rise to “developments,” carrying its characters forward on a slow, ominous drift.
Shot-Blue’s language is a language of becoming, of fleeting moods and flickering impressions, so it is no accident that much of the novel is set in adolescence, at the confluence of so many “becomings.” An intensely imaginative and lucid study of human feeling in all its depth and range, much like Poincheval holed up in his bear, Shot-Blue asks its readers to consider how it would be to feel differently. Its closing scene traces a final, dazzling line of flight, whereby death is revealed to be: only another kind of becoming. - Christiane Craig

Jesse Ruddock’s debut novel offers many poetic and intimate moments. One of these occurs when a young girl named Marie, who lives on a remote northern island, finds a dead hummingbird wrapped in cloth on another girl’s doorstep. Marie knows that the hummingbird has been left there by Tristan, an orphan boy she secretly loves. So she hides the hummingbird in her underwear drawer, and “for the rest of her life,” she will “associate the smell of fresh laundry with a little bit of death.”
This mixture of love and death is everywhere in “Shot-Blue.” Though there are several main characters, Tristan’s story is at the novel’s heart. He and his mother, Rachel, had been squatting in a small cabin, where Rachel was sleeping with Marie’s father for money. This cabin was soon burned down, and after Rachel dies of exposure, Tristan works for room and board at the lodge that has replaced his home. He is standoffish and strange and terribly alone, and the other children are intrigued by him and often cruel. Slowly, he forms an intense relationship with a 16-year-old girl who also works at the lodge. Meanwhile, Marie, another employee, yearns for Tristan’s attention, which he never gives.
There are many shining depictions in “Shot-Blue,” as when the memory of Rachel’s eyes makes part of Marie go “gently unconscious.” Rachel’s face had been beautiful but scarred, and so, for Marie, “something amiss would from then on be a requisite for beauty.” A quiet and spreading sadness in these pages is conveyed in its softest details, as when a blue door reminds Rachel of forget-me-nots, “those timid flowers that spread like loneliness and took over everything.” 
Despite these memorable lines, much of Ruddock’s prose lacks discipline. Her figurative language often verges on excessive and can get distracting. Her more brilliant comparisons are drowned out by others that are obscure and overextended. In one instance, a woman’s thoughts are “biting into her shoulder more sharply than any strap.” This metaphor just doesn’t resonate: Why would a thought bite into a shoulder? And, in a single passage, paint peeling from houses is first “shed in chunks like receipts”; then it “fell like snow when the wind had fingernails”; and in the sentence after that, “it floated down like leaves and melted on the ground, forming pools of warm blue-silver.” These images, though lyrical, don’t seem real; Ruddock appears to be straining for literary effect, which is entirely unnecessary, because her more straightforward descriptions of the natural world are simply breathtaking.
Ruddock’s handling of her third-person narrative voice is also confusing. The perspective often shifts multiple times on a single page, without section breaks, from main character to minor character; instead of bringing us closer to each person, the narration has the effect of distancing us from all parties involved. Any emotional suspense is undone the moment the perspective changes. This narrative style left me unable to discern whose story “Shot-Blue” is supposed to be.
But when Ruddock does allow herself to linger in a character’s perspective for a while, she shows what she is capable of. Especially from Marie’s point of view, Ruddock writes moments of startling intimacy, evoking the pain of adolescent longing: “Her love for Tristan stood in front of her like another person she had to shout over and climb around.” - Emily Ruskovich

Jesse Ruddock’s powerful debut, Shot-Blue, is at once charged with lyrical energy and grounded in a complex, human understanding of trauma, desire and loss. Set in a northern landscape of lakes and forests filled with miners, loggers, vacationers, and the people who eke out a marginal existence at the edges of the tourism and resource extraction industries, the novel follows Tristan, the son of Rachel, a waitress and occasional prostitute, through the loss of his mother and a summer working at a resort on one of the lakes. Shot-Blue is divided into two sections. In the first, Rachel quits her job and retreats to her father’s cabin on an isolated island. Ruddock keeps a narrow focus on Rachel, Tristan, their relationship, and Rachel’s attempts to care for both of them. The section ends when Rachel, having moved closer to civilization for the winter, learns that she has never had title to her father’s island, and that it is being taken over by men who are building a resort; she wanders out into the winter, dying of exposure on the lake ice. In the second, substantially longer section, the novel opens out, including the staff and guests at the now-finished resort where Tristan lives and works. Although the cast of characters is larger, the second section shares the same concerns as the first, revisiting and expanding on the same themes, and using the same incandescent language.
And it is Ruddock’s language that is perhaps the most striking feature of the novel. Ruddock has an eye for detail and a gift for metaphor. Take for example this description of the boarding house that Rachel and Tristan leave behind when they move to her father’s cabin:
It was painted white a long time ago and now the paint shed in chunks like receipts. The place was famous for this: it was a miracle the siding wasn’t bare. If you lived there, flaking paint was part of your weather. It fell like snow when the wind had fingernails. On still days, it floated down like leaves and melted on the ground, forming pools of warm blue-silver.
When tourists casting off the dock at the resort catch fish, they “rise to the surface throwing up wan, shredded, half-digested minnows, little pieces of flesh that [look] like [they’ve] been run through a washing machine.” Ruddock gives even mundane moments resonance and depth. This description of Tristan staring out over the lake in the late evening is rich with echoes of his relationship with his mother and that still raw loss:
Tristan walked to his lookout on the far side of the island facing west, where the sunset would be most indelicate. But he was late, the sky had already bled colour like dried flowers. There wouldn’t be more sunset now, only a fading of light. He thought about watching it happen, but he felt such unrest he couldn’t stay. He looked across the mulled water and thought about climbing down and getting into it and going all the way out. But he would never do it. He didn’t want the deep water and didn’t care if it wanted him. He didn’t even want to remember what it felt like. It was her lair now.
Ruddock’s adroit and revealing diction, such as the use of “indelicate” and “mulled” here, complements her eye for detail and her use of metaphor. Ruddock’s language is consistently, often unexpectedly, beautiful, but this is not a pretty book.
Shot-Blue is set in an environment permeated and defined by violence, its menace, allure and traumatic consequences. Rachel has a facial scar: “It nicked her left temple then ran down her jaw, tent-covering a depression where a full, round cheek should have been.” Its origins are never explained, but it marks her out as a victim, and suggests a past that has left her as emotionally wounded as she is physically scared. The burning of Rachel’s father’s cabin by the men building the resort is a kind of violence, and is perceived as such by Tristan who vows to burn the whole island in revenge. In the second section of the novel, the boys who work at the resort play a game in which they take turns punching each other. Tristan himself invites violence, letting the other boys punch him without attempting to defend himself. Tristan’s desire to be beaten, to be disfigured, is also the desire to connect with his dead mother by becoming, like her, the object of violence, by inviting it to mark, transform and erase him. The novel mixes love and mourning together with self-annihilation in a complex amalgam that testifies to the centrality of violence to the lives of its characters.
As part of this violence, bound up with it and happening alongside it, is the transformation of people, particularly women, into objects to be exploited. Rachel remembers prostituting herself as a teenager:
Rachel would sell herself to a friend. She didn’t think of it as selling sex. They were not good friends, but he would pay her, and they went like that, having sex in his bedroom, even when his parents were home, for about a year until he got a girlfriend. Another time, it was one of her brother Sheridan’s friends, who’d heard about what she’d done. He asked her, said he liked her, he wouldn’t tell Sheridan, and he would pay. At fifteen, she had no other way to get money. She knew those boys, and she wasn’t afraid of herself.
Friendship and sexual exploitation overlap, suggesting that even close relationships are defined by a casual brutality. This pattern is repeated when Rachel realizes she needs money to buy the few extra supplies she and her son need to survive on the island. She starts an affair with Keb, a man who ferries tourist around the lakes in his boat. Like her friendships, the affair has emotional content, but is defined by Keb paying her for sex. In the second section, Stella and Emiel, two guests at the resort, toy with Tomasin, a young girl working there for the summer. Their games are more refined than Rachel’s exploitation, but they still, at their core, involve the reduction of the girl to an object, to a plaything that can be manipulated, possessed and then discarded at the end of the summer.
This pattern is not limited to female characters. When Rachel dies, Keb feels responsible for Tristan, and finds him work and a place to stay at the resort. This is at once an act of kindness—Keb has no duty to protect Tristan: he is not the boy’s father and he was only the mother’s john—and an example of this pattern of exploitation: Keb keeps all of Tristan’s pay, cutting his kindness with selfishness, effectively saving the boy by selling him into servitude. Although this pattern is not limited to female characters, it is primarily limited to them, and Tristan is a special case. He is the only male character to love, first, his mother, and, then, when she arrives at the resort, Tomasin, without participating in their exploitation, as human beings rather than objects. Through Tristan, Ruddock registers the collateral effects of trauma, exploring how it spreads out from its focal point along lines of emotional connection, wounding those attached to it along these lines as surely as those who experience it directly. From one perspective, Tristan, with his defensive interiority and his desire for self-annihilation, is the effect of damage done first to his mother and then to Tomasin. This understanding of trauma, its impact, legacy and capacity to transform even those it does not immediately touch, speaks to the novel’s penetrating emotional sensibility. On the back cover, Rivka Galchen praises it as “a genuinely wise novel,” and she is exactly right.
This is not to say that the novel does not have its flaws. Although Ruddock’s supercharged writing makes for some of the Shot-Blue’s best moments, it is not always a strength. In the second section, the novel widens its scope, introducing a handful of new characters. Of these, only Emiel, one of the resort’s guests, is given a detailed background, and these characters’ relationships to each other and to the concerns of the novel take some time to develop. When not sufficiently grounded in character and plot, Ruddock’s metaphor-driven and imagery-laden language can sometimes fall flat. And the novel drags somewhat through this middle portion. But the second section does slowly begin to echo and expand on the themes of the first section, and it picks up momentum as it moves towards a closing handful of pages that gather together the threads of the narrative into a spectacularly written and wrenching finale that is well worth the reader’s patience.
I began this review by saying that this novel is about trauma, desire and loss. This might suggest that Shot-Blue is a poetic meditation, that it is, like too many novels that are poetic and meditative, easy, even anodyne, but this is book is not that at all. Its beautiful language is bound up with violence. Its poetry is gritty. Its truths are difficult, uneasy. And, although it is not flawless, it will reward you with some genuinely great closing pages. - AARON SCHNEIDER

Foreboding and poetic but also consistently puzzling, Shot-Blue, the debut novel by Guelph-born New Yorker Jesse Ruddock, opens cinematically — with a bedraggled woman trudging on a narrow dirt road during mid-thaw. She’s carrying the boxed contents of her mobile home toward a boarding house one mile away in town.
With her introverted pre-pubescent son Tristan in tow, Rachel eventually reaches the abandoned fishing cabin that she believes her father owned. The pair has landed on Treble Island, a “wild place” on Prioleau Lake (itself shaped like a cliff jumper’s headless body). Ruddock’s setting is all weather and hardship, where survival is questionable and bare subsistence the best outcome. Ruddock conjures Treble Island less as a point on an actual map than a site exemplifying what Margaret Atwood called the “malevolent north.” 

Unexpectedly too, Treble Island is notable for being stripped of historical markers. No internet, television, or even telephone is referenced; the only vehicles in sight are boats; there’s no mention of an event in the outside world to ground the story in a particular decade or zeitgeist. As with a fable (or Samuel Beckett’s famous stage instructions for Waiting for Godot: “A country road. A tree”), Ruddock encourages readers to divest from expectations for realism. From that point, she unfurls an enigmatic tale of hardship, loss, and awkward fleeting connections.
Though Rachel aims to provide for and instruct her troubled child, she soon disappears — evidently, nature (or one of the taciturn men she knows) has dispatched her.
Fending for himself, Tristan begins to work at a tourist lodge that’s been constructed on the island. There, he meets other boys (who torment him), girls (whose mercurial natures confuse him) and adults (imposing figures of mystery, all of them). Locally regarded as unwanted, a weakling, or simply weird, he strives to make sense of a place that proves either uninviting or perplexing.
In contrast to recent a-boy-and-his-mom novels such as Barry Dempster’s The Outside World and Michael Christie’s If I Fall, If I Die, Ruddock’s appears to showcase moody aesthetics over plot or characterization. As such it rewards devotees of lyrical description and modernist wordplay. Others might regard the author’s free hand with cloud, stone, tree, and water metaphors as too much of a good thing and hope for less whimsy and more straightforward plot development. -

Last night I dreamed of persimmons. I’ve never eaten a persimmon, but happened to catch a cable TV rerun of Chopped Canada as I nodded off on my couch – just long enough to learn Susur Lee likes them ripe and that ice cream is rarely a good idea in the studio’s kitchen. Have at it, Sigmund.
What did you dream about, Jesse Ruddock? I bet it was something profound, astute, hyper-vivid in LSD technicolour. Reading Ruddock’s first novel, Shot-Blue, it’s clear the Guelph native’s imagination paints only in her palette’s sharpest hues – smearing broad swaths, dark and moody and dense on the page.
Shot-Blue’s small cast of characters is built to linger and they do, their portraits fortified with Ruddock’s rich setting: a constellation of islands floating somewhere that might be Canada’s oft-forgotten coast, gnarly and northern and not really the place for newly orphaned Tristan to orienteer his adolescent wilderness alone. Rachel, Tristan’s mother, isn’t long for Ruddock’s canvas, but manages in that time to slash through it stunningly – giving the novel its only definitive measure of clean tempo or closure.
Chapter-less and drifting, Shot-Blue shadows Tristan through his home’s harshest seasons into a summer heated by the arrival of Tomasin, who comes in from out of town for a few months’ work. Their age says puppy love but Ruddock says no: kids are dangerous enough alone; together, in something like lust, they’re fearsome. Shot-Blue picks through Tomasin’s curious infatuation with Tristan, a boy blistered by grief but callousing quickly at the simple matter of staying alive. Cut the cast with Gary Paulsen’s hatchet, sprinkle some Susanna Moodie c/o Carol Shields, and sow Iain Lawrence’s Skeleton Tree for backdrop – this is a story out of Canada’s survivalist canon but told mostly through illusion, allusion and emotion instead.

All big dreams and knitted brows, Shot-Blue is a serious and demanding book, contemplating widely in wandering prose. Ruddock is a poet (among other things) and we can call this her debut novel or we can call it what it is: poetry. She taps skills honed across medium – Ruddock a songwriter and photographer besides – to paint vividly a savage, inhospitable northern winter and the human collateral it claims.
Beautifully drawn and lyrical, Shot-Blue moves fluidly, a beat past the norm of something so literary. Dialogue is sparse, and that is both a good and a bad thing for Ruddock’s debut: her characters speak not with but at one another, solitary lines so few that each begs the reader to weigh them carefully on delivery. There’s been no promise of anything light in Ruddock’s first go, but her style asks a lot and risks leaving you behind. Tristan, sketched gradually to great interest, is a character study himself: Ruddock offers a generosity to children most authors reserve for their post-pubescent set, a whole and dynamic personhood that’s no more or less interesting for its age, only governed by the circumstances it knows and encounters with time.
Whatever comatose fantasies consume Ruddock at night, the author’s writing demonstrates she can sift through them deftly for meaning and present that subconscious contemplation on a page. Not always lucid, though consistently rich, Shot-Blue’s examination of loneliness skitters beyond easy digest but is braced in a story that makes its challenge worthwhile. Whatever Ruddock requests in presenting readers her riddled prose, it’s evident she’s done that work doubly herself in their clever crafting.
In January, I counted Shot-Blue among 2017’s most notable forthcoming debuts; I was excited to read Jesse Ruddock’s first book, and facing lofty expectations, it didn’t wholly disappoint. But I’m jonesing harder now for Ruddock’s sophomore round: her art doesn’t need refinement so much as tethering, skills strong but wanting ground experience will sow, something Shot-Blue makes clear she can muster. - Terra Arnone

Jesse Ruddock’s debut novel, Shot-Blue, feels like two novels loosely stitched together. They share a locale, and the author’s deep love of describing it, a handful of characters, and the lyrical strands of familial connection. These disparate chunks ostensibly live under the same narrative umbrella, but in both style and story they differ sharply to the detriment of the novel.
Both sections of the book take place on a smattering of islands on Prioleau Lake, a remote wilderness populated by a handful of weathered locals. The first section revolves around Rachel, a single mother and sometimes prostitute, and her son Tristan, an odd kid unhealthily tethered to his sole parental unit. They stumble around the islands, picking up odd jobs—Rachel sleeps with local boater named Keb for cash—just barely skirting by. The second section finds Tristan, now alone, half-feral and living alone on the island he once called home. When a group of developers arrive to turn the island into a tourist resort, Tristan is forced to work alongside a handful of mainland youth and in doing so, slowly emerge from his shell.
The first hundred or pages or so of Shot-Blue feel like an elegiac knot, a tightly woven mass of poetic landscape descriptions with a thin narrative threaded through the center. Ruddock’s writing ability is nothing to shake a tree limb at, and she paints the landscape of the isolated northern wilds as a character in itself. Rachel, and to some degree Tristan in the early goings, are ghosts of this forested, lakeside hinterland, damaged souls disappearing back into nature. As stunning as Ruddock’s descriptions are, their vague nature in the opening chunk make the characters slippery, the reader left to sort through the tangled knots of prose struggling for purchase.
This changes when Tristan is left on his own and his one time home is torn down to make room for a glaring tourist trap. Tristan is a child of the wilderness, and as it is razed to make room for what might be called civilization, he is grudgingly forced to succumb to this new world. With no parents, and nowhere to go, Tristan becomes a guide for the new resort. Without his mother to hang on to anymore, Tristan becomes wary friends with a roughshod waitress, Tomasin, who finds her own solace in his strange, quiet commune with the natural surroundings. Ruddock’s writing relaxes as she introduces more characters, and where the opening sections of the book feel almost like prose poetry, the second feels like an alternate universe camp story, with Tristan the nebbish dork who learns a few life lessons. There are jocks and cliques and the type of boozy games only dumb teenagers partake in, and at times it feels like pitch-black adaptation of Moonrise Kingdom or any other kids-at-camp flick. It is, of course, more than that; it is a story about reemerging from the grips of childhood, and the sense of loss that accompanies it, of discovering who you are and how you fit into the world. Each character, to varying degrees, discovers themselves on the tree-lined shores of Prioleau Lake, Tristan with the greatest intensity.
This is Ruddock’s first novel though, and you can feel it in how much she wants to do. She wants to write the lyrical environment novel as much as she wants to write the classic coming-of-age story. As beautifully as she’s able to write both, they feel disconnected, and the characters, and their individual storylines suffer because of it. Characters we were led to believe were important in the first half of the book, disappear without warning—Keb, so prominent early is barely a flicker in the later bits—and Ruddock fills their void with an overabundance of far less fleshed out new characters. She isn’t able to wrangle all of them, and as the book peters to an end, many of them are left stranded, without closure. As insular and claustrophobic as this book can feel, it doesn’t dampen the author’s ambitions. She may slip on the rocks of her own aspirations, but Ruddock is gifted stylist and with her skill, she can’t be faulted for reaching up towards the blanket of stars. - Noah Sanders

Tristan is always alone. Sure, there are people around him, names and voices that float in and out of Jesse Ruddock’s debut novel. These characters bounce questions and attempts at intimacy off of Tristan’s young, dark sensibility. But other than his mother, gone early from his life, they don’t get far.
Tristan’s childhood, lived in poverty alongside his mother, gives way to an adolescence in a fictional lake community called Prioleau, located somewhere northeast from Tristan’s home. The book takes place in the kind of non-era that only fishermen and the rural poor can render convincing. Life in Prioleau is dependent upon the whims of the ever-present lake, and the various relationships of the town’s denizens remain at the mercy of nature’s unexpected influences.
Ruddock – a native of Guelph, Ontario, now based in New York – depicts Tristan carefully, always testing the character’s stoic responses against a surreal and sensitive internal poetry. A strange, chatty girl named Tomasin begins to break through to him over the course of her summer stay in the town, but the presence of a few other young men and women quickly push the two apart.
Shot-Blue is very serious, self-aware, and literary. It never seems to land anywhere in particular, preferring to float slowly and poetically along. The author is talented, with a penchant for paradox and a yen for examining the backward logic that guides our daily anxieties. “Every time [Marie] cut cherries, the stain washed off, but that never stopped her from wondering if this time it wouldn’t,” Ruddock writes at one point, in an example of the way she seeks to make the familiar profound.
The spare, quietly conflicted tone spills over into the dialogue, much of which feels evasive and strange. Characters talk through each other, always implying some level of alternate, undefined thought. An enigmatic conversation between Tomasin and her post-Tristan fixation, Stella, offers a good example of this: “You remind me of so many things it makes me sick.” “You’re supposed to keep your eyes shut to rest them.” “I died young, you know. But it’s not tragic.” Every spoken word feels heavy, dragging down the pace of the story. Following along becomes a bit exhausting and a bit confusing, perhaps the way life itself can be. - Jonathan Valelly

A lot of young Canadian writers are loath to include in their stories themes that are (rightly or wrongly) associated with CanLit. They have been brandished for so long that we recoil when we see them, plastered on course syllabi and jacket covers like a marquee announcing a title fight: Urban vs. Rural. Humans vs. Nature. Jesse Ruddock’s debut novel, Shot-Blue, stands out because on the face of it she seems to be doing the opposite and unabashedly embracing Canadiana par excellence: the North.
The North has been an inspiration for many Canadian writers and artists, but what is often depicted or dreamed of is land that is remote, uncharted and uninhabited. Yes, a majority of the country’s population lives within a short drive of the United States border, but what is often ignored is the history of indigenous peoples in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut—real places that constitute the real North. Of course, North doesn’t always refer to these places and it can mean different things to different people. It can be a direction or a destination. It can refer to Iqaluit or Churchill just as it can to Barrie or, to some, Eglinton. It is this ambiguity which lends itself so easily to the idea of a North that is synonymous with the mythology conveyed by a Lawren Harris painting. The musician Glenn Gould was fascinated by the mythology of the North. In his documentary “The Idea of North,” he says:
“I’ve long been intrigued by the incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our country. I’ve read about it, written about it, and even pulled up my parka once and gone there. Yet like all but a very few Canadians I’ve had no real experience of the North. I’ve remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North has remained for me a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid.”
It’s sort of a “sorry not sorry” in only the way Gould as the consummate Torontonian could deliver: admitting he knows little of the North but refusing to relinquish the power of its mythology in favour of its reality.
Although Ruddock sets her story (and here I’m quoting from the back cover) “on a lake that borders the unchannelled North—remote, nearly inhospitable,” she isn’t guilelessly falling prey to any sort of mythologized North. (Even though the same can’t be said of the image of dancing Northern Lights on the book’s cover.) Nor is she relying on the reader’s unconscious associations of the North to convey the isolation, desperation and brutality of her characters. They would be just as alone in downtown Toronto as they would in northern Manitoba.
Shot-Blue is a story of a young single mother, Rachel, who cares for her son on a set of islands in a remote land and whose determined self-reliance has her avoiding the few people with whom she comes into contact. When her son, Tristan, is left to care for himself, he is forced to confront the people his mother avoided, while working at a resort for vacationing southerners, a complex that stands on the ground where he once lived in a cabin with his mother. Here he works, fights and possibly loves. He becomes the object of affection for Tomasin, who works with Tristan on the island. She tells her friend that she wants to know him, that there must be more to him than she’s able to observe, but her attempts are frustrated by her inability to fully break through Tristan’s closed-off exterior. He’s surely affected by the separation from his mother, but he can also seem dim or obtuse. This is not to say he’s entirely imperceptive or unaware. He’s enigmatic and, for the reader, unforgettable, the kind of character you continue thinking of long after you finish the book.
The story begins with a move from Rachel and Tristan’s trailer to a boarding house in town, where a friend offers Rachel a cabin on Treble Island where she can raise her son. They board a boat carrying passengers between the islands, presumably to take up the offer, but when the boat docks at Treble Island and the other passengers get off, Rachel tells the man driving the water taxi to head to a different island, where she and Tristan take up residence in the abandoned cabin that once belonged to her father.
Ruddock’s skill is in not leaning too heavily on the ambiguous northern setting to convey the isolation and loneliness of her characters. Rachel, who tries so hard to be alone, is somehow never satisfied with her isolation and finds that even “dreaming is exhausting.” If she seems insatiable it may be because her loneliness requires other people, if only to mark the distance between her and them. It feels good to find company when you want it and spurn advances when you don’t. For this reason, she’s become grateful for the nights she works, work she’s been doing since she was fifteen and which she doesn’t think of as selling sex. “At fifteen, she had no other way to get money.” And presumably not much has changed.
Her son, Tristan, equally prefers to be alone, staring at the flame of an oil lamp or sitting on the dock watching the water, but he is ultimately dependent on his mother to tell him where to go or what to do. When near the end of Book One an illness forces them back to Treble Island, the story shifts away from Rachel and it becomes clear that this is a story about Tristan and his crushingly sad attempts to find some anchor without his mother. His dependence on her has left him unwilling or possibly unable to make any decisions without someone else making them for him.
Through nothing of his own doing, Tristan eventually returns to the island where he and his mother once lived, to work at a newly constructed resort. Here he finds other boys who are brazen, full of testosterone and eager to fight each other in their spare time. When Tristan is roped into fighting, he’s completely submissive. Ruddock shows restraint in these passages that is, unfortunately, not employed elsewhere in the novel. The reader is just as confused as the other boys as to why Tristan won’t fight back. The only thing both he and the readers feel are the bruises and cuts on his lip, the hard fall on the packed earth. It’s not clear whether he’s reluctant to act or simply unable. Not knowing only strengthens these scenes and his character as a whole. Too often, Ruddock is guilty of over-explaining her characters’ motives or thoughts, as though she lacks confidence in her own writing to convey these things without directly describing them.
This tendency leads to another problem. Late in Book Two, the story shifts focus again, this time to Tomasin, who has grown close to Tristan. But this shift doesn’t feel as natural as the one from Rachel to her son in Part One. Much of Tristan’s character depends on others around him, and so when a rift comes between him and Tomasin, he’s left without anyone to draw him into the plot. Sometimes a character’s story finds its natural end, and this seems to be it for Tristan. But Ruddock doesn’t end the book here. Instead, Tristan is pushed aside and Tomasin (along with other, newly introduced characters) assumes a stronger focal point in the book’s final section. It could be that by continuing the story with Tristan at the edges, Ruddock is saying that he lacks his mother’s social dimension in isolation and that he can be more alone than her.
When the book finally concludes, it’s a relief to find it’s an ending that belongs to Tristan. And though it could have had the same resonance without some of the intervening plotlines, it is faithful to the complexity and ambiguity of his character without trying to solve any of it. - Ben Wood

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