An ambulance streaks past on the Trans-Canada Highway with lights flashing and siren wailing to attend a car crash, a medical call or a high-elevation rescue.
Motorists move aside, wondering what happened; sometimes that question is answered either when the ambulance is spotted on the side of the highway, its crew preparing a patient for transport to the hospital, days later when a photograph appears in the newspaper, or when the gossip mill catches up.
Until we have reason or need, that glimpse is usually all we get of what life must be like as a paramedic or an emergency medical technician.
But Graeme Pole, an author and paramedic, has that deeper view and he draws on both for his new novel, Siren Call.
This is Pole’s second novel. He released his first, Healy Park, through his company, Mountain Vision Publishing, in 1998. His 11 non-fiction books, meanwhile, include a line of guidebooks and titles that tell the history of the Rocky Mountains.
At its heart, Siren Call is a redemption story, with its main characters, medics William Marshall (Marsh) and Miranda (Miri) Walker, trying to navigate a complex job in a complex place.
Marsh is a competent and experienced paramedic; he is also completely and utterly dedicated to his patients, which makes him complicated and stubborn. Walker, meanwhile, is also intelligent and competent, but because she’s more of a by-the-book paramedic, she must come to terms with Marsh’s often unconventional attitude and approach.
Unlike Marsh’s previous partners, however, Miri learns to navigate these chaotic waters, and in the process she helps Marsh navigate some equally chaotic waters of his own.
The two develop a friendship and a deep trust that allows them to become a formidable medical team. And they need to be, as Marsh quickly decides that Miri is a “disaster vortex,” given that most of their calls fall into the unusual category, including a downed helicopter, a cliffside mountain rescue, and a mayor collapsing on the steps of Banff’s town hall.
Pole uses this idea – that Miri courts disaster – to good effect. It allows him to delve into a broad spectrum of emergency calls and situations that first responders in the mountains might experience.
He handles these emergencies well throughout the novel by providing just enough detail to build up the intensity and tension without dragging out the incident or leaving readers hanging. In doing so, he focuses more on the poignancy of the moment than the chaos or carnage.
That can be seen in one incident when Marsh and Miri are left with an impossible decision during a blizzard: “Her partner (Marsh) was kneeling at the side of a man to whom he had given his winter clothing. Snow piled on Marshall’s hair and stuck to his fleece. He was drifting over but was still glued to the task at hand. William Marshal was on his game and there for only one thing and for however long that took – to be with a man who was not going to make it home,” writes Pole.
Along with showcasing the skill and humanity of his paramedics, Pole also strives to show how challenging and difficult the emergency medical trade can be. Instead of dumbing down his story, he puts it all out in there in its complex and often messy glory.
Usually jargon is something best avoided in writing, and Siren Call is loaded with it, but in this instance, it works, as it fits with the story, helping it, rather than hindering it.
Siren Call is at times beautiful and uplifting, just as it is educational and heartbreaking. Pole’s description of place could only be written by someone who not only has spent a lifetime – 34 years in his case – exploring the Rockies, but also understands this often overwhelming landscape.
“The nightly chill, usually with frost, cleans the air and cleaves the mountains from the sky,” he writes. “As the day begins, they loom first as suggestions, as heaving, blue-black-purple forms with no mass. But as the light comes to the day, fringing the horizon, the mountains animate. They claim their shapes, both in reality and in the imagination of the beholder.”
The Bow Valley region, with its myriad activities and the nature of its economy, namely tourism, ensures emergency medical responders have a diverse, difficult and demanding job. Siren Call reflects this reality, giving readers a gritty yet compassionate view of one of the region’s unique jobs.
Siren Call is available in both print and digital copies through Pole’s website mountainvision.ca and at local bookstores.