Finding Healing in the North: Through Black Spruce

1_through_black_spruceI had read Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I re-read it last week as part of some final adjustments to my dissertation. I’m glad I had the chance to re-acquaint myself with Boyden’s work because it is sometimes easy to get carried away with criticizing authors for things extraneous to their writing. I don’t think I will be reading his latest book, The Orenda, any time soon, and I’m still not necessarily on-board with the way he has become a “celebrity” Native author (for a review from a friend of Boyden’s latest novel see here). However, Through Black Spruce is a genuinely good read.  I think I was paying more attention to form and style this time around and I was happily rewarded with an intricate narrative structure and a compelling narrative.

The novel centres on two protagonists – Will Bird, an alcoholic Cree bush pilot, and his niece Annie, both of whom live in Moose Factory/Moosonee – who are attempting to put their lives back together in the wake of drug-related violence. Annie’s sister Suzanne has gone missing with Gus Netmaker, the brother of Marius Netmaker who violently attacks Will because he believes that Will has been talking to the police about his drug dealing. You can already get a sense of how intertwined these two narratives are. The novel moves back and forth between Will’s narration and Annie’s. The catch is that for the most part, Will is in a coma after another vicious attack by Marius, while Annie begins to narrate her search for Suzanne while she is visiting Will in the hospital. At first glance this seems like an odd narrative structure, but this time around I really appreciated what it made possible in terms of story-telling. Boyden also does a good job using suspense to keep readers pushing along as he begins to weave the two seemingly separate narratives together by the story’s end.

What Through Black Spruce does quite well is represent the difficult reality that many northern indigenous communities face as drugs make their way north, ruining the communities by poisoning the youth. However, Boyden refuses to let tragedy rule and instead weaves a narrative of resilience and courage even as he remains true to the brokenness of his community. Like Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse,  this novel performs a kind of literary healing for its indigenous characters. This is not to say that it makes everything right in the real world, but it does open up a space to think and talk about the serious issues that many of Canada’s indigenous communities face.

For me, this is Boyden’s best work as I found Three Day Road too violent for my liking and I’m not sure I’ll pick up The Orenda based on some of the reviews/criticism it has attracted. I think his early collection of short stories, Born With a Tooth, was quite good, but Through Black Spruce presents Boyden at his best.

I recommend Through Black Spruce for fans of indigenous writing and those who like narratives set in Canada’s north.

Boyden, Joseph. Through Black Spruce. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2009. Print.

Tragedy and Young Boys: The Round House

lo_res_bks_photo_louise_erdrich_-_the_round_house_hcI finished Louise Erdrich’s The Round House a few days ago but couldn’t get around to writing the review because of festive events. I really liked this novel and read it in a few long sessions because Erdrich has a clear sense of how to build suspense and keep readers turning the pages. I should say that this is impressive given that her narrative roughly follows a murder mystery plot, a style of plot that I have not necessarily been on board with this year. The Round House is narrated by Joe, a 13 year old Ojibwe boy on a North Dakota reservation, and it follows the massive fallout from the brutal assault and rape of his mother on the reserve. I will try not to spoil the plot as I think everyone should go out and read this book because it is easily in the top 10 books I read this year. Joe’s father is a Native judge, and he takes the case quite personally, leading Joe to also band together with his friends’ in their own attempt to solve the crime. What makes the crime so heinous is that the criminal has carefully planned it so that any justice is going to be difficult to achieve. Erdrich highlights how Native tribes in the US have a very difficult time operating their own judicial systems because of the legal quagmire that surrounds their rights and sovereignty. The crime, depending on where it occurred, would have to be tried before a tribal court, the county court, or the federal court because parts of the federal government still lay claim to native people as wards of state.

What makes The Round House so good, for me anyways, is the way that Erdrich digs deep into the violence of rape and the fallout that occurs, but she also does not let this kind of trauma freeze readers into emotional paralysis. Like Joe, we are left trying to grapple with a mother who enters into a catatonic state while all of his friends are just beginning to enter puberty in an eventful summer on the reservation. Joe is caught between two worlds: the adult one of his parents and the youth of his friends with no easy way to reconcile them. This tension drives the narrative alongside Joe’s quest to find the killer.

Yet The Round House is also about the everyday lives of the Ojibwe on their North Dakota reservation. We come to know how the social world of the place and the important role that the Round House plays in keeping Ojibwe traditions alive. Even though Joe’s world is shattered by the violence done to his mother, he is still a thirteen year old boy and Erdrich illustrates how this event forces him to mature. She also throws in a fair bit of humor (including some hilarious dirty scenes where two old Ojibwe exchange what I can only guess are tall tales about their past sexual lives). Erdrich carefully balances the novel with poetic description, narrative plotting, and witty dialogue so that The Round House  is a very readable book where it easily could have been a very difficult one. This is not say that The Round House does not offer challenges, but rather that it does not sink into the quicksand of heavy-handed pathos. Erdrich asks difficult questions concerning justice for North America’s indigenous peoples but she also delights in the vibrant world we live in.

I highly recommend this book for all readers.

Erdrich, Louise. The Round House. New York: Harper, 2012. Print.

Hockey, The Rez, and Trauma: Indian Horse

IndianHorse_jpg_1375505cl-3Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse is a fantastic novel. He confronts head-on the brutal, racist and repugnant moment in history when Canada decided to forcibly remove indigenous children from their families and educate them in residential schools. This could easily take the novel into the pathos-thick territory from which there is no recovering, but Wagamese does not let his story become stuck in tragedy, violence, and misery. Instead, he and the novel’s protagonist, Saul Indian Horse, use hockey to lift themselves out of the potential pit of horror. This is not to say that Wagamese makes light of the residential school, but instead that he refuses to let it simply overrun his narrative.

I was recently having a conversation with a friend about Joseph Boyden’s latest book, The Orenda, and how he seems to be a prize and accolade magnet. L suggested that this is in part because he writes Canadian historical fiction and that he is willing to engage with the nation-state as a narrative object. I am not sure how I feel about Boyden – I liked Through Black Spruce and found Three Day Road a decent novel – but I am somewhat bothered by how he receives so much attention as a “Native” writer. Boyden has Metis blood in him, but, similar to Thomas King, he has made his way through academic circles and become a popular writer, in part, through that venue. This is not to say that they do not do valuable work (I think King’s Inconvenient Indian might become a landmark work in Canadian literature), or that you need to have some form of blood quantum in order to qualify as an indigenous writer. However, all the attention these two authors garner tends to obscure other equally deserving indigenous writers like Wagamese, Richard Van Camp, Eden Robinson, and many others. The 2013 Giller prize longlist and the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award shortlist both included Boyden’s novel but not Wagamese’s.* Now I don’t want to suggest some kind of literary conspiracy here, but I do think the fact that Indian Horse primarily concerns a northern Ojibway family and takes place mainly in rural Canada does work against it. Literary prizes tend to be nationalistic in tone and choice, and this, I believe, prevents Wagamese from making any of these lists even though he deserves too (there might also be an element of “over-saturation” of rez-school horrors – which is problematic in its own right given the fact that Canada has not truly addressed the horrors it perpetrated and also problematic given the widespread accolades and celebration of Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man, a novel about a Roman Catholic priest abusing white children).

Enough of my griping, let’s get back to Indian Horse. As I said earlier, hockey becomes an escape for Saul and some of the best sections of the book come when Wagamese describes him playing hockey. There is a magic in the words and a poetry that comes close to the sheer joy of playing hockey. Now I realize that not everyone loves hockey, but for me certain sports like hockey and soccer have a poetry in movement. As chidlren playing sports, we sometimes tap into this. Think about how excited you used to get to play tag or get to gym class (this might be a boy thing too…) Writing can sometimes capture this, and Wagamese does a good job of this. Of course, he also uses this kind of escape to make Saul’s fall from grace even more painful. Saul leaves the residential school and his adopted Native family in Maintouwadge for the minor hockey leagues and encounters systematic and brutal racism. He realizes very quickly that the white parents think hockey is there game and that Saul has no place playing it. Eventually, he gives up and takes to an itinerant lifestyle and heavy drinking. Saul begins recording his memoir as he dries out in a rehab centre. What strikes me about this narrative setup is that it foregrounds recovery and hope while still doing justice to the very real trauma that Saul and his family experienced. Indian Horse is easily one of my favorite reads this year, and I hope to teach it in the coming years whenever I get the chance because I think more people need to hear this story.

I highly recommend this novel to anyone who reads. Consider it an essential read for 2013.

Wagamese, Richard. Indian Horse. Vancouver: Douglas & MacIntyre, 2012. Print.

*Just after publishing this post, I realized that Indian Horse was included in the CBC’s 2013 edition of Canada Reads, a game-show like series where five people defend a book that they think all of Canada should read. Unfortunately, Indian Horse lost out to Lisa Moore’s February. I haven’t listened to that year’s edition, so I can’t comment as to why it lost or how. The show is a fascinating listen as all kinds of different forms of politics get played out, and, sometimes, the book you wouldn’t expect to win does (as in 2007 when Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals won).

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.

Absolutely Essential Reading: The Inconvenient Indian

downloadI don’t really have much to say about Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian beyond two things: this is a very well-written book and it is absolutely essential reading for any North American.

As to the first: King is an amazing writer and surely one of the treasure’s of North American writing. I say North American because King himself resists labels like Canadian or American and prefers Native instead. I have loved his fiction for a long time, have hopes of listening to his CBC radio broadcast Dead Dog Cafe at some point in the future when I have time again, and am constantly impressed by his output across genres.

As to the second: King gives what he calls a “curious account of Native people in North America,” eschewing terms the term history because it limits what he is able to do. What he writes is a personal reflection on the long course of indigenous history in North America, the present problems and the future possibilities. Simply put, indigenous-settler/invader relations don’t look too different today than those of the 19th or 18th centuries. If you are surprised by this, read chapter 7 “Forget About It.” King’s work is a call to action and a timely reminder that Canada and the United States have a long ways to go before anything resembling justice will be achieved between these countries and the indigenous inhabitants who were here long before. King maintains a humorous/wry tone throughout but his simmering anger comes to a boil at many points (as it should given the history he writes). This is not a shrill polemic or a conveniently forgetful account but a thoughtful piece of writing that King has been working on for a long time. And it shows.

Simply put, if you live in North America, you need to read this book.

King, Thomas. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. Toronto: DoubleDay Canada, 2012. Print.

Coming of Age, with Comics: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

tumblr_me7y359pBy1rfppz2o1_400Sherman Alexie’s 2007 young-adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a great read. Really, I should stop here and let you all go out and read it for yourselves because I’m not sure there’s much I can say beyond that. Although the book is marketed towards young adults, the content is quite heavy (as any good young-adult book should be). Alexie’s book also includes comics and illustrations throughout, adding an interesting flavour to the experience.

The Absolutely True Diary centres on Arnold Spirit, a young Spokane Indian growing up on the Wellpinit reserve in Washington state. He has just finished elementary school and is about to go to high school. However, he decides after receiving some advice from a well-meaning geography teacher to attend the off-reservation white high school in Reardan. Mr. P, the aforementioned geography teacher, tells Arnold that he needs to leave the reservation before he gives up hope. Arnold is a bright kid and the rez school simply won’t be able to help him escape the cycle of poverty and alcoholism that exist on the reserve. Arnold hesitantly decides to do this but faces backlash from his best friend, Rowdy, alienation from the all-white students of Reardan, indifference from the teachers, and various moments of outright racism from students and staff.

One of the things that surprised me in Alexie’s novel is that he is quite clear that reservations can become prisons which destroy most of the indigenous population. I think I have a certain amount of political caution bred into me so that I am hesitant to say anything bad about reservations or indigenous people in general. Reading Alexie critique the problems of the reservation was a real eye-opener for me. Bad things happen to good people and these bad things have very really causes in the way that white North American governments have treated indigenous peoples. Alexie’s self-reflexive criticism (he does not exempt the characters of Wellpinit reserve from blame) was amazing to see. He’s also a great writer so that I felt moved throughout the novel and never felt like it sank to shrill political criticism.

Did I mention there are comics included in the book? Because there are. And they are great. I’m all for mashing up genres particularly because some of the most creative work is happening in these areas. See my review of Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music for more on that. And comics always make things better …

I highly recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to any fan of indigenous literature.

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007. Print.

Stories From the Hotel: red rooms

red-rooms-cherie-dimaline-paperback-cover-artOkay, I’ve changed up my list and may have to do more changes on the fly as we go. As you may or may not know, I am a PhD Candidate in the middle of trying to write a dissertation. Right now I am doing research (aka. reading a pile of books, red rooms is the fourth I’ve finished this week), so I am finding myself hard pressed to stay on track with 10-10-12. A friend of mine warned me about this problem, so now I am following up on a contingency plan to keep myself on pace.

Anyways, Cherie Dimaline’s red rooms is a series of five interlinked short stories with an intriguing narrative device/framing narrative, but I am not sure that it all pulls together in the end. I had never heard of Dimaline before but have since found out that she is a Metis/Ojibwe writer from Toronto. Although red rooms never names the city it is set in, I get the sense that it is Toronto and the hotel is close to the Skydome or the Exhibition grounds. Dimaline’s narrative device is to set up a narrator, Naomi, who works in house-cleaning at a hotel, a three-star (at most) chain hotel, as a guide to each story. She crafts each story from the objects (and bodies) that are left behind in the rooms that she cleans. I quite like this narrative setup and was intrigued to see what Dimaline would do with it. Having finished the book, I am having a mixed-reaction. On the one hand, there is enough narrative to keep Naomi’s sections interesting (they come at the beginning of each short story), but on the other hand I wish Dimaline had done more to tie Naomi’s life in with the characters of the stories. I felt like there was more to be had from this innovative framing, but Dimaline did not push it.

The stories themselves are well-written and explore interesting terrain. Dimaline’s framing device also means that at some point each story must come back to a hotel room, so that in some ways she is limited in the range of stories she can tell. However, this does not really show through in the book itself (although I can’t really think of any scenarios other than the ones she has covered that would be material for additional stories). Anyways, the first two stories all start with corpses, and, for some morbid reason, I liked these ones best. The first takes up an indigenous prostitute’s perspective and the ending is wonderfully ambiguous. The second takes up a gay Metis man’s point of view and the intriguing relationship he shares with a high end purse shop owner who is dying and obsessed with Metis history. The third story, “Room 106,” features a world-renowned Cree photographer and Demaline does some interesting meta-textual work with indigenous artists here. I think, for me, the problem is in the last two stories. “Room 207” is about the dissolution of an affair between a wealthy man and his Native museum mistress. A large part of the story deals with the actual break-up and I felt that the pacing just got way too slow for my liking. Enough that I stopped reading last night and had to finish today. Dimaline’s stories, at least in this collection, steer away from dialogue and rely heavily on narration. This can be done well but I felt like “Room 207” lacked momentum.  “Room 304,” the final story, is more interesting on a conceptual level in that Dimaline sets up three layers of story with Naomi finding a diary, Natalie (the protagonist of the story and a middle-aged, successful single native mother) reading the diary, and T. the diary’s writer. While I am on board with interesting narrative structures, the diary sections of this story really bothered me. Dimaline writes in a diary tone and I guess it just rubbed me the wrong way.

Overall, Dimaline’s collection shows a lot of promise. The framing device both gives depth to the stories and limits what she can do with them. red rooms is a good read, but I’m not convinced it’s a great one.

I would recommend this book for fans of indigenous writing.

Dimaline, Cherie. red rooms. Penticton, BC: Theytus Books, 2007. Print.