Local author tells animal tales

Inside the Riverdale library, a captive audience is in suspense, as Giller Prize finalist Alissa York describes a recent telephone conversation with her father.

“My father phoned me up and said, ‘I’m getting near the end of the book, and you need to tell me if you’re going to kill Billy off,’” she said.

Billy is an oversized, sloppy, part Labrador retriever-part mystery breed character in York’s latest book, Fauna. Set in the Don Valley, Fauna explores the mystical animal life of the valley.

York brought a smile to many faces in the crowd as she rhymed off familiar names of local streets and buildings. She even mentioned the Riverdale library as the first place her teenage runaway character, Lily, stumbles upon early in the story.

“She’d found her way to the Riverdale library on her third day in town,” she said. “I did a lot of walking through the streets and alleyways around here, writing down names of every store and building I set eyes on.”

Fauna is the Alberta native’s third novel. Her other two, Mercy (2003) and Effigy (2007) explore similar themes of nature, animals and isolation. In Fauna, both humans and animals struggle with loneliness and painful memories of the past. They seek refuge in the valley as well as in each other’s company. The human drive to conquer one’s environment is dealt with through antagonist Darius (Coyote Cop) who blogs about the nuisances he perceives urban coyotes to be, and how he will go about ridding them from the valley.

Roxanne Miller lives in the northwest part of the city. She said she became accustomed to frequent encounters with city wildlife as a child.

“What struck me about the book is York’s depiction of animals and how identical to my experiences with them here in the city it is,” she said.

Riding the subway over the valley first set York’s mind in motion. Staring down at the brush piqued her curiosity enough to venture in on her bicycle.

“As I passed over the valley, I looked down and thought, ‘What’s living down there, who’s living down there, what kind of lives do they lead?’ Then certain wayward souls popped into my head,” she said.

Among these souls is 29-year-old proprietor, Guy Howell. York says he hatched from her imagination and is connected to a specific part of the valley. She describes it as a “wild” lot located at the south end. The lot soon took shape as the setting for Guy Howell’s Auto-Wrecker. This is the spot where the characters spend most of their time. It quickly becomes their sanctuary.

“The story kind of revolves around Guy and the auto-wrecking yard,” she said. “This character grew from the auto-wrecking yard; he has the gift of empathy.”

Guy has a rare talent for understanding the fragility of damaged creatures. He encourages them to take refuge in his wrecking yard. York’s compassion for animals is woven into his character as well as in the fiery spirit of young Lily, who rescues migratory birds with her guard dog Billy.

As for Billy, reading the book will determine his fate.

Marie Lynn Hammond travelled from Stouffville to have her copy of Fauna signed. She said York’s portrayal of the connection between humans and animals is as close as it gets.

“I like the way she dealt with the relationship between people and animals,” she said. “Her depiction of animals is not at all sentimental. It’s very sympathetic and realistic.”

York said her love of animals and nature runs deep.

“Growing up in Alberta left a very deep imprint on me,” she said. “I grew up thinking about wilderness and wildlife, it’s natural for me.”

Though York’s message of co-existence is quite clear, she said she fears there are many who share the mentality of her Darius character.

“Darius lives in fear, thinking he can exterminate other creatures to fill a void within himself,” she said. “I think Margaret Atwood said at one point, ‘We write about the things we worry about.’”