News of the 215 unmarked graves of children found at the Kamloops Residential school broke on May 27. The country was horrified with many honouring the lives lost in some form including leaving small shoes at the steps of our institutions. The tragedy was magnified six days ago when the Cowessess First Nation discovered 751 unmarked graves outside the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. What the Truth and Reconciliation Commission described as “cultural genocide” was personified by these findings, with more assuredly to be uncovered as provincial governments commit funding to search the properties of all former residential schools. This dark history has cast a pall over the upcoming Canada Day celebrations and this months review of books for Indigenous History Month.
Five Little Indians was announced as the 2020 winner of the Governor General’s Award for Literature on June 1. Michelle Good, a first time author, is of Cree ancestry and a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. Three days earlier the book won the 2021 Amazon Canada First Novel Award. After working for Indigenous communities, Michelle Good went back to school to earn a law degree at the age of 43. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts in 2014 and published Five Little Indians in 2019 at the age of 65 – an inspiration for all of us aspiring writers. Although the accolades come with a heaviness, Michelle is comforted with the hope that “Every time the book gets a greater profile, there are more hearts and minds that can be opened to the direct and intergenerational impact of the residential school legacy, and perhaps it will contribute to an ongoing and a better participation in reconciliation.” https://www.kamloopsthisweek.com/news/kamloops-area-author-wins-prestigious-awards-for-debut-novel-1.24325408
The book chronicles the lives of five Indigenous youth attempting to survive in the aftermath of years trapped in the confines of a residential school in British Columbia. The book bears witness to Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie and Maisie, friends struggling with the horrific baggage of their experience, some managing to escape their shackles, the others succumbing to the traumatic abuse. “It was an unspoken agreement between them: the past was the past. It’s hard to run from the past, but once stuffed away, they knew it couldn’t be allowed to poison the present. They couldn’t be who they were now with their lipstick, pay cheques and rooms, if they were also those children, or the children who’d left the other children behind.” (p. 101). The book has been described as an introduction into the residential school system. The language and description is considerably gentler than the more graphic depictions from other writers; nevertheless, the book manages to convey the assault on the Indigenous life while at the same time providing some measure of hope for the survivors. The book is worthy of its awards and nominations and of your time to read.
CBC viewers will be familiar with the name, Eden Robinson, as the author of Son of a Trickster, the first book of a trilogy on which the TV series, Trickster was based. Acclaimed and on slate for a second season, the show ended abruptly when its producer and director, Michelle Latimer was found to have exaggerated her Indigenous heritage.
Monkey Beach is the first novel by Eden Robinson. It was shortlisted for the 2000 Scotia Bank Giller Prize and the Governor General Literary Award while receiving the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize awarded annually to the best work of fiction by a resident of British Columbia. The book is centred around Lisamarie and her immediate and extended family growing up on the west coast of Canada, coping with a traditional past in the midst of a modern world. The reader is introduced to an array of memorable characters, including Uncle Mick grappling with the residue of residential schooling and the Ma-ma-moo, the grandmother, extolling Haisla knowledge and wisdom. The book draws from myths and legends, not always obvious to a non-native reader but magical and mysterious nonetheless.
The writing in Monkey Beach is more complex than Five Little Indians, switching in time, sometimes without notice, and mixed with social commentary and dry humour. One example of the latter is this passage from the sharp-tongued Lisamarie which reminded me of a line from a popular movie: “As Uncle Mick would ironically have said, she is a delicate Haisla flower. I wonder what they said to each other when they first met. From what I can squeeze out of Jimmy, I take it they were introduced by Jack Daniel’s.”
The reader encounters the dark side of racism towards Indigenous people and the street life of Vancouver. At the same time the book provides detailed explanations of important cultural and environmental aspects such as how to catch, cook and grease Oolichans. I very much enjoyed the book and look forward to delving into her later works.
Thomas King has been in the literary news lately, publishing regularly with significant notoriety and acclaim. His most recent novel, Indians on Vacation is on every list of books by Indigenous authors, longlisted for the Giller and nominated for the Governor General’s award. It’s publication came shortly after the release of Obsidian, the latest in King’s Dreadful Waters mystery series. I have read both in the past year. My first encounter with Thomas King was with Green Grass, Water Running from 1993. Very early in the book I was laughing out loud, stopping to read it to Olga so she could share in the enjoyment. We ended up reading the entire book to each other. When I purchased Truth and Bright Water several years later, I read the book to our daughter, Olena, one chapter each night. Both experiences remain etched in our fondest memories. Thomas King’s writing is among my favourites for it’s humour and use of dialogue. The Back of the Turtle was the 2014 winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award. It’s imposing hardcover size and 518 page length was intimidating and hence it sat unopened on my shelves for years. It became the ideal book, however, for a mid-month planned stay at the cottage.
True to his style, Thomas King spells out with acerbic wit and humour, the story of the guilt stricken, scientist Gabriel encountering Mara on the Smoke River Reserve on the coast of British Columbia years after an environmental disaster. Central to the story is a local wise man, Nicholas Crisp who has a penchant for bathing nude; Sonny who collects scraps along the beach while holding vigil in the abandoned Ocean Star Motel; and Soldier, the dog who may be the smartest of the bunch (“He’s a dog.” “And what better thing is there to be?”) . I read this book with a constant smile on my face, imagining each hilarious scene: “Lustig was a tall woman with broad shoulders and stout legs. She was neither pretty nor handsome, but looked quite capable of bringing down large antelopes and small deer on her own.”
The Back of the Turtle also has a serious message about our contemporary approach to environmental issues in this consumer society. In the latter half of the book the warnings are more pronounced with biting critiques: “North American Norm didn’t give a damn about the environment. Cancel a favourite television show. Slap another tax on cigarettes. Stop serving beer at baseball and hockey games. That was serious.” I devoured the book in a matter of days and highly recommend it.
I met Drew Hayden Taylor at the 2010 Premier’s Award Gala Dinner at the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto. The Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology’s annual event showcases the achievements of its alumni in program discipline categories. As the administrative representative on Seneca College’s Board of Governors, I was invited to dine with other members of the executive and the school’s nominees for the awards. Drew Hayden Taylor was our suggestion in the Communication Arts category (although I cannot recall from what program he graduated) and was scheduled to be seated at the same table. I had already purchased his first novel, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass which was short listed for the Governor General’s award and a portion of the basis for winning the Premier’s award that evening. I brought it along and asked him to sign, which he graciously complied with an inscription typical of his humour, “To Henry, the people you meet over salads!”
Drew Hayden Taylor is known more for his short stories, plays and journalism; Chasing Painted Horses is only his second novel. I enjoyed his first much more. The story was interesting, the origin of a painted horse discovered by Roger, a police officer, in an alley in Toronto. Roger recalls his time as a child on the Otter Lake Reserve where he is introduced to the first renditions and the circumstances surrounding it. I found the craft of writing to be lacking, with wordy phrasing, obvious statements, and inconsistency in voice. From my perspective, the story would have been better as a novella. His plays are award winning and I do enjoy reading his regular feature in the Globe and Mail on Indigenous issues; however, I was not a fan of this book in its current form.
I haven’t decided the theme, if any, for the month of July. I am ecstatic now that it is possible to peruse book stores again at one’s leisure and stumble upon random works for my Canadian literature collection.
Happy reading everyone.