Wildly Inconsistent: The Last of the Mohicans

60872I am on to the home stretch now with four books remaining, having stayed up late in bed to finish James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. I’m not really sure what I have to say about the novel beyond the fact that it is wildly inconsistent. Not just in the representation of indigenous peoples (which is uniformly awful and Cooper may have a legitimate claim to being the first writer to pen some of the most notorious “Indian” characters), but also in the sense that the plot wanders all over the place. While it is not quite as bad as John Richardson’s Wacousta (essentially the Canadian equivalent of The Last of the Mohicans), the ending is disappointing and overly convenient. Please note that throughout this review I will refer to the indigenous characters as Indians rather than indigenous peoples, following Daniel Francis’ distinction of Indians (a creation of European settler-invaders, often found in literary works) and indigenous people (the peoples that the Europeans actually encountered.

*Spoiler alert* In the end, Cora, the older of Munro’s two daughters dies at the hand of a mindless Indian, conveniently clearing the way for Duncan Heyward to marry her younger sister, Alice. This is a convenient plot device because not only does it turn Cora into a martyred figure, but it also does away with her problematic heritage. As her father confesses to Heyward, her mother was a mulatto from the West Indies, meaning that Cora has African blood in her. As readers, we are expected to be horrified at this and her death conveniently clears Munro’s stain and allows Heyward to marry the pure white daughter Alice (from a different mother). From a 21st century perspective, this is hugely problematic given the kind of racial politics Cooper espouses throughout (“Don’t you dare pollute your blood line with some inferior race, white readers!”). But it also has become somewhat ironic given that Cora, at least, is a more determined and fulsome character than Alice who seems to spend most of the novel faint or unconscious because she has a weak constitution and cannot possibly handle the violence and brutality of the frontier (unlike Cora, presumably because she has slave blood in her).

I suppose I had hoped that The Last of the Mohicans would be fun. And, in a sense, it is. There are plenty of fight scenes, surprising violence, lots of wandering in the woods, plenty of sublime landscapes, and the good guys win in the end. Of course, this last point is also the problem because the Indians are either blood-thirsty, mindless dogs like the Iroquois, or they are noble savages who are conveniently dying away as more Europeans arrive like Uncas, the title character. Apparently, this novel has been adapted into at least 7 different films, showing how much value is attached to this narrative. This is where it gets problematic because the novel very clearly helps to assuage white consciences about the atrocities committed by Europeans on the indigenous people they encountered. While there were clearly some atrocities perpetrated by the indigenous peoples on French and British populations, they pale in comparison to the systematic violence that has been directed at indigenous people since then. Thomas King’s An Inconvenient Indian is a wonderful counterpoint to this book, because he searches for evidence of “Indian massacres” and finds very little to justify the genocide of indigenous peoples by Americans, Canadians, British, French, Dutch, and Spanish invaders. I am not quite sure what to do with The Last of the Mohicans. Do you teach it in a critical mode, pointing out the flaws of the novel to students? Or do you pass it by and allow it to disappear into the mists of history with its harmful legacy, hopefully, dissipating over time?

I would not recommend this book to any but the most serious students of American literature. It is important culturally speaking, but I don’t think it merits this importance.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. 1826. London: Arcturus Publishing, 2012. Print.

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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 Difficult Read: The Conservationist

downloadNadine Gordimer’s 1974 novel The Conservationist may have won the Booker Prize, but that does not make it an easy read. In fact, I get the sense that it won the award precisely because it is a difficult book. Difficult from both a methodological standpoint and from its themes and motifs. The novel centres on Mehring, a rich South African industrialist, who has purchased a farm out in the country to provide himself a place to seduce his mistress. However, he quickly becomes attached to the place and its beauty and spends more and more time here. The farm is operated by blacks and is near a black settlement, or more properly what the novel calls a “location,” and there is a palpable tension throughout that is bred by apartheid. As Mehring reflects on his life, it becomes more and more clear that his personal life is in shambles, he deludes himself about the very questionable politics of South Africa under apartheid, and remains willfully ignorant of the general humanity of anyone other than himself. Published 20 years before apartheid officially ended, Gordimer’s novel very clearly intends to unsettle any convenient or self-serving notions about justice in South Africa.

From a narrative standpoint, the novel is also quite difficult because Gordimer uses a roving narration that is by turns third-person limited (rotating between a few different characters) and first person (mostly of Mehring’s thoughts). The narrative almost moves fluidly between the present in which Mehring visits his farm and his past where his relationships to his wife, his mistress, his potentially gay son, and the farm’s workers, are explored. It is almost like stream-of-consciousness writing, but not quite that intense. What I think this roving point of view does is continually show us how blind Mehring is not only to his own privileged position as a wealthy white male South African, but it also shows us how others alternatively buy into his self-image and reject it. I’m thinking particularly of his relationship with Jacobus, his black overseer who runs the farm. On the one hand, Jacobus admires Mehring for his Mercedes, his actions, and his lifestyle but, on the other hand, there is also a sense that Jacobus knows Mehring does not possess the land. Mehring’s name may be on the deed, but he has very little claim to the land itself unlike Jacobus and his companions who work in it everyday. When there is a catastrophic flood, Jacobus is unable to get a hold of Mehring and the farm begins to shift subtly as the blacks believe they are on their own again. Of course, Mehring comes back when the roads are fixed, but there is a subtle shift in the relationship as both Jacobus and his fellow workers seem to see through Mehring.

One thing that really intrigued me about the novel was the relationship to land in it. Mehring delights in losing himself in his third pasture, laying amidst the grasses in different seasons. But this seems like a false calm because buried nearby is an anonymous black corpse that mysteriously turned up one day. The landscape seems to allow Mehring to escape the turbulent politics of apartheid, but not quite either as the flood disrupts his sense of pastoral innocence, revealing the partially-decomposed corpse again. This also makes me wonder who the conservationist of the title is: is it Mehring who wants to preserve a nostalgic and romanticized farm? Or is it the blacks who work in the land and can lay claim on it? Is it an ironic sense of conservation whereby Mehring is trying to keep alive a flawed and dying system of justice? I have no answers to these questions, but I find them intriguing nonetheless.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in South Africa, but be forewarned that it is a difficult read.

Gordimer, Nadine. The Conservationist. London: Penguin Books, 1974. Print.

Heavy with History and Violence: Beloved

downloadToni Morrison’s Beloved is a heavy read. It is thick with the history of slavery in the United States and Morrison does not shy away from the physical, emotional, and psychological damage that it wreaks on those caught up in it. I suppose I expected something lighter like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but that’s probably because it’s been a while since I last read Morrison’s The Bluest EyeBeloved does not revel in violence, like McCarthy’s Blood Meridian seems to, but it does not shy away from it either. The novel centres on Sethe, a young slave woman who manages to escape slavery in the south by fleeing to her mother-in-law in Ohio along with her three children all while being nine months pregnant. Although Sethe has escaped slavery, it continues to make her life a living hell in the form of ghosts, her absent husband who may or may not have been hung for trying to escape, and, most of all, in the traumatic consequences of the reappearance of her former owners. When the narrative starts, 18 years on from Sethe’s escape, she lives in 124, her mother-in-law’s house, with her daughter Denver as Baby Suggs, the in-law, has died while her two sons have abandoned her to go fight in the Civil War.

One of the things that I begrudgingly liked about Beloved was how it refused a quick reading. I found it very difficult to plow through the text, not just because of the narrative voice which moves across time and space quite fluidly but more so because of the heaviness of the material. It is one thing to recognize slavery as a bad thing in an abstract sense, but it is quite another to realize the depths of depravity and evil that went along with it. On some level, I think the human brain tends to downplay potential evil even if it is confronted with the realization of that potential quite regularly (think Vietnam, Rwanda, and most recently the shootings in Nigeria). Perhaps we all have some ingrained form of optimism about the human race. What makes Beloved a great novel is that Morrison refuses to let us have this naivete yet she does not leave us here but suggests ways out of this painful knowledge.

I am always hesitant to say that novels capture a zeitgeist or help to explain historical events, partly because that can become an onerous burden on the author but also because it tends to refuse fiction its unique ability as fiction. However, Beloved really does shed light on the fractious and divisive racial politics that animate the US. The widespread celebration of Obama’s presidential election victory is, in some ways, an attempt to get beyond the history that Morrison so eloquently narrates. And yet, it is also impossible to escape this history. The novel’s final chapter repeats a refrain of “It was not a story to pass on,” self-reflexively labeling the whole novel as a kind of forbidden story. And yet, it is a necessary story because it lays out in no uncertain terms how destructive racism and slavery were. Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize the year after it was published while Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993. These accolades are well-deserved and have helped to reassure me that prizes are not always political, that sometimes merit does win out.

I highly recommend Beloved for anyone who reads. It is difficult, heart-breaking, but it is also powerful and deeply insightful.

Morrison, Toni. BelovedNew York: Penguin Books, 1987. 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.

Sharp, Dark, and Startling: In This City

clarke-city-225So, more work creeping into the list at this point as I am falling behind the pace in my dissertation work. But Austin Clarke’s 1992 collection of short stories In This City is a great read. If you don’t know Clarke’s work, you need to go and read some of his stuff. He is probably one of the most under-rated Canadian writers. He was writing hard-edged black fiction for almost 40 years before he finally received some recognition in his 2002 Giller Prize win for The Polished Hoe. His Toronto trilogy (consisting of The Meeting PointStorm of Fortune, and The Bigger Light) is worth picking up if you can find it.

Enough gushing about Clarke, on to the stories of In This City. The collection is set almost entirely in Toronto during the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the recurrent motifs in the stories is the shooting of a Jamaican man by the Toronto Police, an event that sends out ripples of fear and catalyzes the growing anti-racism movement. If you didn’t know, Toronto unfortunately has a long history of racist police brutality leading to the formation of the Black Action Defense Committee in the wake of the 1988 Lester Donaldson shooting (see this page if you want more on some of the violence that has occurred). The characters in Clarke’s collection vary in age, gender, and politics with some hoping to just get by and others furious and protesting this racist atmosphere. Where some writers can let their politics overtake the narrative, I think Clarke is much more sophisticated than that. The opening story, “Gift-Wrapped,” centers on a young girl from Timmins who is trying to make it in Toronto. However, her skin colour seems to have limited her job opportunities to just getting by in an office tower on Bay Street. As Christmas approaches, she feels alone, having almost no friends except a lesbian co-worker who took a pass at the narrator and a former roommate who has left the city. Her white boss once took a pass at her after taking her out for drinks as well, and the story seems to be heading towards the maudlin. However, Clarke throws a twist I did not see coming when *spoiler* the same boss shows up at her door on Christmas morning because his wife knows that she has no one in the city on Christmas day. This action is wonderfully ambiguous: does Bill actually mean well in this action, or has he been forced into it by his wife and some form of potential guilt? But I also think that it is an uplifting gesture of humanity when the narrator has seen how cold and indifferent the streets of Toronto can be in the winter. Similarly, “I’m Running for my Life” paints a complicated picture of a black domestic’s relationship with her white employer whose wife has just left him.

Clarke is a powerful writer and the stories in In This City will open up new views of Toronto. I read some of these stories while wandering the city’s streets and the city that Clarke explores is very different from the one in tourist brochures. These stories are particularly eye-opening if you, like me, are white and sheltered from the raft of problems that come when poverty, racism, and violence meet. 

I highly recommend Clarke’s collection of stories for any fans of CanLit and especially for the citizens of Toronto.

Clarke, Austin. In This City. Toronto: Exile Editions, 1992. Print.

 

It Grew On Me: To Kill a Mockingbird

rooftop-to-kill-a-mockingbirdThis is going to be a bit of a scattershot review as I had somewhat mixed feelings about this book that managed to resolve themselves by the time I finished.

Hesitations first: I have been reading Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners for a class that I am a part of, and these two novels began to blend into each other. They both deal with small communities – Maycomb County in Lee’s, Manawaka in Laurence’s, have young female narrators growing up (only for a part of Laurence’s though), have a wide range of characters from various social classes, and feature conflicts that pit the different classes against each other. I’m not sure this was a good conflation, so I stopped reading Laurence’s book to finish this one.

I found it hard to get into the novel for a good 100 pages or so. The folksy/Southern tone of the novel was somewhat off-putting. Maybe it is because I slogged through William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury last summer or Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God a year ago, but somehow this felt a little stale and trodden. This is a totally unfair critique though, and I admit that. Once I managed to get into it, it really took off and felt less like Tom Sawyer and more like Huck Finn (to make another American lit analogy).

Hesitations aside, what I liked: the issue of racism at the heart of the novel felt, at first and mistakenly so, out of touch. As a 21st century reader in Canada, I’d like to think that such issues have been long dead in this northern country, or, even better, that they never did happen here. This is utter nonsense. Canada, in its 200 + years of history (dating back to European settlement) , has been just as racist as the Americans have (and, in many ways, still is although we tend to view the indigenous peoples as problems instead of African-Canadians). In another light, our country has a worse history because it has tried to cover this past up with copious amounts of official apologies (many of them far too late in coming) and a general myth that, somehow, we were/are more civilized than our southern neighbours. Again, not true. This book was a good wake-up call to issues of race/ethnicity that still plague Canada today. Just look at some of the comment boards on CBC or the Globe and Mail’s stories on Idle No More.

Yesterday, in lecture for the above-mentioned class, the professor mentioned that novels, because of their length, are more invested in character and time than short fiction. I heartily agree after finishing this book. Scout, the narrator of the novel, really grew on me and Lee’s careful depictions of the changing relationships in the family between Atticus, the single father-lawyer, Jem, his son, Calpurnia, the black cook, Aunt Alexandra, and Scout are delightful to read. These are living breathing characters that felt more like companions that “imaginary” people in a book. I can see why this book was a big hit when it was released and continues to be taught at the elementary and high school levels. Lee has some amazing passages and sequences along with a stellar cast of characters.

Lastly, the novel’s structure is worth commenting on. Pay close attention to the first page or two as Lee comes full circle near the end. She caught me off-guard and I was genuinely pleased to see that kind of narrative cohesiveness. It won a Pulitzer Prize and rightly so. This is a rich novel that has a deceivingly complex narrative structure (not unlike The Diviners). 

I would heartily recommend this book to any reader and encourage them to get through the slower sections that are ultimately necessary for the novel’s conclusion.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Warner Books, 1960. Print.