A Raucous Romp on the Reserve: Motorcycles & Sweetgrass

SweetgrassIt is a double-dose of indigenous literature! I picked up Drew Hayden Taylor’s Motorcycles & Sweetgrass because I knew it would be a fairly fast read. And it was, not that it makes it any less meaningful or good. The novel, like his short stories, is humorous, at times light-hearted, and, at other times, deeply serious. Taylor’s writing style reminds me of Thomas King’s, so it was not a surprise to find King thanked in the book’s acknowledgements.

The novel is set in the Otter Lake Reserve and circles around Maggie Second, the chief, her son Virgil, and a mysterious stranger named John who shows up on an Indian Chief motorcycle. If you have not seen one of these before, it is worth a quick google search. They really are a thing of beauty. This strange detail becomes a key part of the plot and illustrates Taylor’s adept and mischievous use of what could be seen as a culturally inappropriate symbol. What is typically a racist stereotype, the Indian warrior, used by white culture to justify the exploitation and theft of native land, becomes in Taylor’s hand, a re-appropriated ironic symbol. The Reserve has just purchased 300 more acres of land and this has caused no end of headaches for Maggie. Again, what could be a contentious issue, think of the recent battles in Caledonia, is turned into a comic event by Taylor. The non-indigenous locals are anxious about giving the natives anymore land and gripe about losing taxable property while Maggie is continually pestered by every band member with ideas about what to do with the land. Everything from a casino to a theme park, a revolutionary protester school to a nuclear waste dumping ground is presented. The humorous tone that Taylor deploys keeps the issues from bogging down the narrative into a too-serious discussion of what are very-real issues for many indigenous peoples in Canada.

This is the thing I enjoyed most about Taylor`s novel. The novel steps lightly, even dances around, serious issues like residential schools, alcohol abuse, decolonization. This is not to say that it dismisses them or treats them unfairly, but that it refuses to let itself drown in sorrow or self-pity. I am tempted to call  Motorcycles & Sweetgrasss a comedy, but that would be a disservice to indigenous literature as it is clearly something else. From the outset, it is clear that in the end everything will be alright. The novel itself is set up by an italicized narration that says “Hey, wanna hear a good story? Supposedly it’s a true one” (1). Framing the novel as a “good story” while refusing to call it truth or fiction allowed me to enjoy the various narrative twists and turns. I am not sure why this is. I would hesitate to call the novel a fable, but the structure is somewhat similar in the sense that we know the ending outcome will be good over evil, or order over chaos. Of course, having a hostile raccoon army, a native martial arts master, and a white man riding in on an Indian Chief motorcycle create a comically chaotic ride.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to any reader. Taylor is a great storyteller and this novel manages to cover a lot of ground while keeping readers turning pages.

Taylory, Drew Hayden. Motorcycles & Sweetgrass. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011. Print.

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