A Different Kind of Narrative Voice: Ravensong

ravensong-1It took me a while to get into Lee Maracle’s Ravensong, but once I did I found the novel quite rewarding. Maracle’s 1993 novel centres on an indigenous community in Maillardville, British Columbia during the 1950s as it undergoes a second flu epidemic in a number of years. The novel is narrated, more or less, by Stacey, a seventeen year old who has plans on leaving the community to go to UBC in order to become a teacher. She plans on coming back and opening a native school in the community so that the rest of the children won’t be subjected to the trauma of residential schools. Complicating this are her duties as a daughter during the flu epidemic, a largely uncaring white community across the river that is content to stand by and watch the natives die, and the grief that comes with losing members of one’s family. Maracle is very clearly on the indigenous side and carefully sets about showing how the indigenous community exists on its own terms despite being threatened by the white community. Of course, there is also a sense of shock at just how brutal and uncaring the white community is.

I mentioned in my last post that I struggled to get into this novel, and even finishing proved more difficult. I think this is because Maracle employs a very different narrative voice than I am used to. I would call it a roving third-person omniscient narrator that mostly follows Stacey, but also occasionally drops in on her sister Celia, her mother Momma, a cedar tree, and Raven who  seems to be orchestrating most of the events in the community. But it’s not just the moving point of narration that I had difficulty with: there is a slowness of pace, a thoroughness of reflection, and an round-aboutness that meant Ravensong was not a fast read. I believe that Maracle intends this, and, on reflection, I am glad she did this. What at first might seem to be a sign of shaky or immature writing is actually carefully crafted so that we can enter into the rhythms and movements of Stacey’s community.

One of the other reasons why Ravensong is worth reading is that it makes a compelling case for just how damaging colonialism is even when physical violence is not a part of the mindset. In this case, the ignorance and apathy from “white town” is just as damaging as the violence that came before. There is a devastating moment when Stacey confronts Steve, a bright white high school student who is interested in Stacey, that her father has ignored his Hippocratic oath and stood by while the native community is torn apart by a preventable illness. In a sense, Maracle signals that cross-cultural communication might be possible but that it will involve a huge amount of work from both sides (and it might not be possible until white settler-invaders start to come down from their presumed “superiority”). In all, I think Ravensong is a great example of complex indigenous writing that looks long and hard at the difficult process of decolonization.

I would highly recommend this book to any fans of indigenous writing, or anyone in BC hoping to gain a handle on the often troubled relationships between indigenous peoples and settlers.

Maracle, Lee. Ravensong: A Novel. Vancouver: Press Gang Publishers, 1993. Print.


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