Jasper Wild pays tribute to park’s protectors

George Mercer’s new novel puts the spotlight on Jasper National Park development // supplied

“We’re kind of loving this park to death. Too many people in my opinion.”

So says park warden John Haffcut in George Mercer’s newest novel, Jasper Wild, the third and latest instalment in Mercer’s Dyed in the Green series.

And while Jasper Wild is set against a familiar backdrop, just as recognizable in the book are the attitudes, opinions and values of the characters which populate it. There’s Haffcut, a battle-hardened pragmatist who sees the erosion of common sense as inversely proportional to the increased number of park visitors. There’s Marion Seawell, the staunch conservationist who takes local superintendents to task for neglecting the national park mandate. And there’s Ben Matthews—who assumes the lead role in all three Dyed novels—the principled, eager and impulsive new recruit through whose eyes and ears readers discover Jasper’s charms, quirks and corruptions.

Mercer should know. He spent 10 years as Jasper National Park’s wildlife specialist before leaving to Gulf Islands National Park in 2004, where he retired. Now working full time as a writer, Mercer took on poaching problems in 2014’s Dyed In The Green; wrote about bureaucratic bungling in last year’s Wood Buffalo; and now with Jasper Wild, tackles the increasingly-relevant topic of development in Canada’s protected places. Jasper Wild’s main characters eventually go head to head with an international mining corporation intent on carving off a piece of the park for itself.

“There is still a small minority of people who are pretty ignorant of the values of parks and protected areas and still think that we can run roughshod over the earth and take whatever we need,” Mercer says.

Mercer doesn’t apologize for taking strong positions through his fiction. In fact, that’s the whole idea. His books are intended to offer an access point for readers not familiar with national park issues. By weaving conservation themes into a page-turning mystery—replete with unrepentant poachers, greedy developers and corrupt managers—Mercer hopes to draw more attention to the issues close to his heart.

“It’s a personal thing,” he admits. “I feel very strongly that development in our national parks should be strictly controlled.”

If you’ve read his other books, it should come as no surprise that Mercer’s landscapes shine brightly in Jasper Wild.  Like Matthews in the novel, Mercer recalls being awed by the majesty of the Maligne Range when he took his first trip there. And as for the Tonquin Valley, like Warden Haffcut says: “Once you see the Ramparts, you’ll never want to leave.”

Even still, it is the people, more than the landscapes, which give the work its texture. Long time locals will find in the novel’s supporting cast curious amalgamations of several Jasperites who have left their mark on the community in various ways. Moreover, even though Mercer inserts a disclaimer which says any resemblance to actual people is purely coincidental, readers who are familiar with the Jasper Environmental Association will recognize in the Marion Seawell character the sharp wit and the critical eye (not to mention the refined British accent) of the JEA’s longstanding treasurer, Jill Seaton,.

“Somebody has to give this place some backbone,” Seawell tells her audience in one early scene.

Mercer, for his part, wears his respect for Seaton’s backbone—and that of her late husband, Basil—on his sleeve. He even dedicates the book to the couple.

“She’s my local hero in Jasper,” Mercer says of Seaton. “I wanted to pay homage to the people who fight for what they believe in.”

Now that Mercer is a full time author, fiction is where he fights for what he believes in. And he’s not done yet. Even as he maps out his marketing strategy (a self-published author’s work continues well after the book is printed), he’s looking ahead to the next three instalments of Dyed in the Green.

Until then, readers can pick up Jasper Wild at the Friends of Jasper National Park and on July 15 during Parks Day, visit with Mercer as he signs books.

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