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The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

Inconvenient IndianThomas King explains in the Prologue called Warm Toast and Porcupines that “the underlying narrative is a series of conversations and arguments that I have been having with myself and others for most of my adult life, and if there is any methodology in my approach to the subject, it draws more on storytelling techniques than historiography. A good historian would have tried to keep biases under control. A good historian would have tried to keep personal anecdotes in check. A good historian would have provided footnotes.

I have not.”

He continues: “And, while I’m making excuses, I suppose I should apologize if my views cause anyone undue distress. But I hope we can agree that any discussion of Indians in North America is likely to conjure up a certain amount of rage. And sorrow. Along with moments of irony and humour.”

I love it that he puts the “u” in humour!

Also in the Prologue there follows an interesting discussion about terminology and in particular about the word “Indian”. King says he doesn’t “see that one term is much better or worse than another” and that he is fond of “First Nations” (“the current term of choice in Canada”) and “Native Americans” (“the fashionable preference in the United States”). His conclusion? “For all its faults and problems – especially in Canada – “Indian,”as a general designation, remains for me, at least, the North American default.” This neat clarification of issues of terminology sets the stage nicely for a discussion in which every one knows where the author stands and, I think, very successfully and cleverly defuses the likelihood of arousing ire that clouds the much bigger issues/questions to be considered.

Then he goes on to clarify a much more important matter: “While we have dispensed with guns and bugles, and while North America’s sense of its own superiority is better hidden, its disdain muted, twenty-first century attitudes towards Native people are remarkably similar to those of the previous centuries.”

The final point clarified in the Prologue is an interesting one: why did King decide to “to take on both Canada and the United States at the same time.” This is what he has to say: “For most Aboriginal people, that line doesn’t exist. It’s a figment of someone else’s imagination. Historical figures such as Chief Joseph and Sitting Bull and Louis Riel moved back and forth between the two countries, and while they understood the importance of that border to Whites, there is nothing to indicate that they believed in its legitimacy.

I get stopped every time I try to cross that border, but stories go wherever they please.”

Chapter One(Forget Columbus) starts out with a quotation from a work by Jeanette Armstrong which is particulary well chosen for this work:

Out of the belly of Christopher’s shipKing #2
a mob bursts
Running in all directions
Pulling furs off animals
Shooting buffalo
Shooting each other

Pioneers and traders
bring gifts
Smallpox, Seagrams
and rice krispies
Civilization has reached
the promised land.

My apologies if that’s too many quotations so far: I really do believe the words of the author and the work of others he or she chooses to include speaks strongly about the character of the book itself so you need to sample those two things much more than you need to listen to me . Like his definition of history: “History may well be a series of stories we tell about the past, but the stories are not just any stories. They’re not chosen by chance. By and large, the stories are about famous men and celebrated events. We throw in a couple of exceptional women every now and then, not out of any need to recognize female eminence, but out of embarrassment.
And we’re not easily embarrassed.”

King suggests we forget about Columbus and start our historical account in Almo, Idaho. He’s never been there he says and neither has Christopher Columbus nor Jacques Cartier or Samuel de Champlain or David Thompson or Hernando Cortes. He thinks Sacajewea along with Lewis and Clark might have passed through the area but the town wasn’t yet built. All Almo is famous for, he writes, is an Indian massacre in which almost 300 westward bound immigrants were killed. A plaque commemorates the event. More statistics are presented about massacres and these are followed by some figures for massacres which were not about Indians doing the killing including one in 1598 in New Mexico in which 800 Acoma and the left foot of every man over the age of twenty-five was cut off. These are extremely sobering statistics.

Oh and yes, apparently the Almo massacre never happened. What do you mean you say? Well, you can check it out in The Inconvenient Indian, pages 4 to 6 in the hard cover version.

The book is packed full of interesting data such as history of the Wild West show, the story of the twentieth century’s most famous Indian image, James Earle Fraser’s 1915 sculpture The End of the Trail, the image of Indians in the movies, relocation programs of the Mi’kmaq and many others, extermination and assimilation policies, apologies for deplorable practices in residential school etc.

Then there is the matter of Prime Minister Harper’s statement at the G20 Summit in Philadelphia that blatantly stated that Canadians “have no history of colonialism.”  WHAT! Where on earth is the man’s head and what qualifies him to represent all Canadians?  How shameful!

I could go on and on but I won’t. You probably need to read this for yourself. And while you are at it do gather some of Thomas King’s fine fiction and prepare to kick off your shoes and laugh heartily.King #3King #4King#1

Back of the Turtle

For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu

“One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful woman.
One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful girl.
But for today, I am a child. For today, I am a boy.”
__ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS, “For Today I Am A Boy”For Today I Am A Boy

The above is the epigraph for this book. Here are some words from the first chapter (entitled “Boy”):

“…in the first grade, we did all of our assignments in a slim composition book to be collected at the end of the year. I couldn’t imagine consequences that far away. Maybe I’d be dead by then, or living on the moon.

One of our assignments was What I Want to Be When I Grow Up. Our teacher had written several suggestions on the board : doctor, astronaut, policeman, scientist, businessman, and Mommy. Mommy was the only one with a capital letter.

Working in studious silence, I drew myself as a Mommy.

…Two days later, I found my notebook lying open on my bed. That page was ripped out. I asked Bonnie, my younger sister…The evidence didn’t point to Bonnie: she could hardly have ripped so neatly, right from the staples, making it seem as though the page had never been there to begin with. There was no one else in the family I was willing to confront.”

“The year I became friends with Roger, we were asked again. I said fireman. A picture was optional. I worked furiously on mine. The fireman had an ax in one hand and a woman in the other, and his muscles were as bulbous as snow peas. Flames danced all around. I could imagine only being the woman…I left my notebook open on the coffee table when I went to bed.”

When his father came in to to say goodnight…”He patted me on the foot through the blanket. The door clicked shut. I stayed awake for  a long time afterward, wiggling my warm toes.”

The boy’s name is Peter. The setting is Fort Michel, a town of 30,000 people in the province of Ontario. Peter has three sisters, – Adele and Helen who are older and Bonnie who is younger. His father waited eight years for a son and wanted to have a dozen boys but Bonnie was the last child. He had wanted to name Peter  Juan Chaun which meant “Powerful King” in Cantonese but Peter’s mother objected saying there were “too many harsh sounds, too severe for a newborn”.

In an interview with Shelagh Rogers, author Kim Fu said that Peter’s father’s journey as an immigrant could be compared to Peter’s journey as a transgendered person. Peter’s journey is, of course, the more complicated one because he must contend with his father’s challenges as they effect him and with his own challenges erected by a world not yet entirely ready to accept who Peter is or will eventually choose to be.

The parents are nicely severed from the story by giving them only “Father” and “Mother” designations and, in some ways, this enables readers to see more clearly how they influence Peter’s search for self. His sisters play more significant roles and their individual issues as well as their relationships and/or interactions with Peter remind us that Peter’s confusion does not exist in isolation. Each of his three sisters experiences difficult coming-of-age journeys. It might have been helpful to Peter to be able to see more of his sisters’ confusion but that would have been a different story so it must suffice that we see them as supportive examples for Peter.

In a discussion with Adele and Helen for instance Adele tells Peter that she doesn’t think Father likes him spending so much time with his sisters because he wants Peter to be like him. Peter, in turn, is able to state that he wants to be like Adele, to have hair like her and be pretty like her etc. When Helen reminds him that he is a boy, he rebels and Adele counters by saying that sometimes she wishes she were a boy. Such exchanges helped to bring forward issues for both Peter and the reader and kept the mood lighter than it might have been.

Each sister played important roles for Peter and one another. Adele took Peter and Bonnie to see black-and-white films and let them wear her clothes. Peter thought that when she left “all beauty would pass from the world”. Helen and Peter had a common bond: neither had any friends. Helen helped Peter throw Adele’s things in the river so that she would not go away. Peter and Bonnie were only fourteen months apart and were more like twins than brother and sister.

This is a remarkable and informative book about issues best understood by a receptive reader who truly wants to understand and/or needs to share similar experiences. I think it could be immensely helpful to young people experiencing confusion regarding gender identity or trying to understand such confusion in a friend as well as parents, teachers, counsellors etc. Aside from all that it is just a well told  story reflecting a major issue in our society.

Bone & Bread by Saleema Nawaz

BoneAndBread_interim.indd“Walking home from the soccer field, I dragged my feet and looked at my family. Though my skin was lighter than Sadhana’s and grew even paler in the winter, Mama said I was my father’s daughter, since I had Papa’s full lips and cheeks, his large brown eyes, his propensity for sweets, and a love of bread.

My sister was darker, smaller, bird-boned, her face angular where mine was round. We both showed signs of inheriting Mama’s strong nose, but when it came to comparing ourselves to the girls at school, Sadhana never wavered in her conviction that we were as pretty as anyone else.  Of the two of us, Sadhana was the best at managing to take the world in and judging it.”

And there you have the title, “bone” representing Sadhana and “bread” representing Beena.

From the first sentence (“If you listen, you can almost hear the sound of my son’s heart breaking.”), this was a novel I didn’t find easy to put down for any reason. I think I might have been willing to skip meals were I living on my own. It had the characteristics of big, family sagas but was, simultaneously, intimate and cozy, peopled by folks you could have tea with and could talk to about anything and everything.

Yet, nothing is hidden and loss and intense grief are present on the first page when we learn that Sadhana has died and at the end of the first chapter Papa whom we have barely met has gone down to the bagel shop and died. Life and all its happenings just seem to roll on and on as the pages turn and there is no time to stop because you will miss something for sure!

The story is set in Montreal mainly but at a certain point Beena and Quinn do move to Ottawa which is a very big step for Beena and the first real break between herself and Sadhana. Quinn maintains the family link by deciding to go to school in Montreal. Papa, by the way, is Indian and Mama was born in Galway.

There is a richness and a fullness and perhaps that is what makes the loss and grief almost bearable. This richness is in things like Mama’s description of Papa’s laugh: “a sneeze full of tulips mixed with a river of swans”. Imagine that! And this description of her uncle: “Uncle was as strange to us as a new kind of tree, a fir in a grove of maples, and he might have felt the same way about us, since he had always been a bachelor.”

There are some very serious issues imbedded in the book in addition to the loss of family members and mother-daughter relationships but everything fits smoothly into the overall narrative. One of those issues centers upon refugees: a refugee family claims sanctuary in a church basement. The mother is Somali and the father is Algerian. Their son is one year old and was born in Canada. The father lost his appeal to stay in Canada and the authorities are trying to make an example of him because he is an activist and was trying to help other Algerians. Sadhana knew the family and as readers we get to go inside the situation with her.

And there is the prickly matter of who Quinn’s father is. Quinn is Beena’s son and his father abandoned her when she was pregnant and Beena has raised him with Sadhana’s and her uncle’s help. (Her uncle took over the bagel shop when Papa died.) Quinn becomes curious about his father when he gets older and he turns to his aunt Sadhana for help in this matter. As readers we know about Quinn’s birth and his father so we are totally involved by the time he becomes interested in finding out more. And Nawaz tucks the story of Quinn’s father neatly into the refugee situation to keep our interest at a high level.

Another of the serious issues is anorexia and the long term role it has in the lives of those who experience it as well as those close to the person afflicted.

A book about real life and how hard it is and how full of fun it is too. And how does it all add up in the end? …….”That I am here in a kitchen with my son, and we are eating together and we are alive. And the work of getting closer, of loving harder, is the work of a whole life.”

 

And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier

This is a beautifully written book (translated by Rhonda Mullins) which you will likely wish to have been much longer than it is which possibly means that it is exactly the right length! It is on the short list of the books being presented in March by the Canada Reads program on the CBC and it is being defended/presented on that program by the musician Martha Wainwright.

Here’s some important information given to the reader on the opening page:

“This is the story of three old men who chose to disappear into the forest. It’s the story of three And the Birds Rained Downsouls in love with freedom.

‘Freedom is being able to choose your life.’

‘And your death.’

That’s what Tom and Charlie would tell their visitor. Between them they have lived almost two centuries. Tom is eighty-six years old and Charlie is three years more. They believe they have years left in them yet. 

The third man can no longer speak. He has just died. Dead and buried, Charlie would tell the visitor, who would refuse to believe him, so long had been the road to reach  Boychuk, Ted or Ed or Edward – the variations in the man’s first name and the tenuousness of his destiny will haunt the entire tale.

The visitor is a photographer who is as yet unnamed.”

Oh and yes, there is a bit about love making life worth living but you can be trusted to suss that part of the theme out for yourself!

And there is some history here as well. The visitor coming to the area is a photographer who had heard that Ted/Ed/Edward Boychuk was one of the last of the survivors of the Great Fires. He is the third man spoken of above.And the Birds Rained Down 3

Plaque Text

On July 29, 1916, fires which had been burning for some weeks around settlers’ clearings along the Timiskaming & Northern Ontario Railway were united by strong winds into one huge conflagration. Burning easterly along a 64 km front, it largely or completely destroyed the settlements of Porquis Junction, Iroquois Falls, Kelso, Nushka, Matheson, and Ramore. It also partially razed the hamlets of Homer and Monteith, while a smaller fire caused widespread damage in and around Cochrane. The 200,000 ha holocaust took an estimated 223 lives, more than any other forest fire in Canadian history, and led to the development of improved techniques and legislation for the prevention and control of forest fires.

The photographer had first learned about the Matheson fire from an old woman she had met on a park bench in High Park in Toronto on a lovely April day two years previously. The woman had told her about the sky black as night and the birds that were falling from it like flies.

“It was raining birds,” she told her.”   “…you couldn’t breathe for the heat and the smoke, neither the people nor the birds, and they fell like rain at our feet.” The old lady had left the photographer stunned and without having taken a picture. And so she ventured on her quest to find more pictures of the destructive beauty of the birds raining down in the old woman’s eyes.

The photographer took pictures of other survivors of the Great Fire and Boychuk (see opening quotation from book above) had so far eluded her camera. He had lost his entire family in the fire. It takes the photographer some time to win over Charlie and Tom and she listens to a collection of stories by the camp fire. Eventually she is taken to Boychuk’s grave and meets his dog Kino. Tom assures her that Ted Boychuk had simply “reached his expiration date”.

The plot, however, has thickened for the photographer and another character arrives on the scene in a Skandic snowmobile in winter and on a Honda TRX 350 in other seasons. More information about Charlie, Tom and Ted are passed on to the reader via Bruno.

And through Bruno another person, an old fragile woman, expelled from the world, comes to join the camp in the woods. She is Bruno’s aunt and her arrival means great change to the little community by the lake.

“A bit like when a newborn arrives in a family, a sort of grace descended upon the community and ensured there were no concerns other than the well-being of the new arrival.”

A literary gem and a  welcome addition to the highest quality titles on meaningful aging in North American society. A treat for the mind and the heart. I am grateful to Jocelyne Saucier and Rhonda Mullins.

Stoner by John Williams

I received this book as a gift from a very good friend and decided to start it immediately. I had never heard of it but knew my friend had very good taste. I was not disappointed but I was very sorry the book ended so soon. At 278 pages it is a relatively short read: one doesn’t need more of Will Stoner but one wants more.

StonerHere is the first passage I marked:

“Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world.  You’d let it hew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong. And you have no place to go in the world.”

The above was spoken by Dave Masters, a friend on the same staff as Stoner who, along with Gordon Finch, formed Stoner’s social circle.   The three young men met every Friday at a small saloon in downtown Columbia and discussed their teaching and study.

Masters maintains that the university was actually created by providence or society or fate “so that we can go in out of the storm. It’s for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world”. Stoner remembered Masters’ words later in life: “it gave him a glimpse of the corrosive and unspoiled bitterness of youth.”

William Stoner “was born in 1891 on a small farm in central Missourie near the village of Boonville, some forty miles from Columbia, the home of the University. ” He had duties on the farm from the earliest time he could remember: At age six, he milked the bony cows, slopped the pugs and gathered eggs. When he went to school, he walked the wight miles there and back and still did his chores. “At seventeen his shoulders were already beginning to stoop beneath the weight of his occupation.”

William believes that when he finishes high school in the spring of 1910 he will take over more of the farm work and he was aware that his father was getting slower and more weary but his father surprised him with news that there was a new school at the university in Columbia called a College of Agriculture and the county agent had come by and suggested that perhaps William ought to go there. There is a relative he can stay with and his dad says that he “could send you [him]  two or three dollars a month.” When William asks his parents if they are sure his father makes the longest speech William had ever heard him make and which h sums up by saying: “You go on to the University come fall. Your ma and me will manage.”

In the first semester of his second year, Stoner had to take a survey of English Literature. This course “troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before.” His instructor was Archer Sloane who “was feared and disliked by most of his students. Stoner found “that he could not handle the survey as he did his other courses. He fares no better than the other students who cannot relate well to Sloane and who are less than comfortable with the subject matter. But, in spite of all this, Stoner has would would most likely be identified as a life altering experience in class one day when Sloane speaks aloud a Shakespearian sonnet and in his second semester he dropped his basic science courses and interrupted his Ag School sequence, taking an introductory course in philosophy and one in ancient history as well as two courses in English literature.

He returned to work on the farm in the summer but he did not explain the changes he had made in his courses. When he finishes his degree he decides to stay on for further study. In a meeting with Professor Sloane he learns something that he has not yet voiced to himself: “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”

When his parents come to see him graduate, he must tell them that he is not returning to the farm. “He grieved for his own loss and for that of his parents, and even in his grief felt himself drawing away from them.”

John Williams writes pain, particularly emotional pain, almost as if he is painting it with a fine brush. He succeeds in making a reader sympathetic even towards characters which the reader may find hard to like or forgive. He somehow creates a safe place for both his characters and his reader to seek shelter from an inhospitable world: I think this is actually integral to his writing style.

It is difficult to convey the power of the experience of reading Stoner. I will borrow from the words of others:

In a Wikipedia article, Morris Dickstein is quoted: “a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving that it takes your breath away.”

From an article in The Globe and Mail: “Stoner …is a slim novel, and not a particularly joyous one. But it is so quietly beautiful and moving, so precisely constructed, that you want to read it in one sitting and enjoy being in it, altered somehow, as if you have been allowed to wear an exquisitely tailored garment that you don’t want to take off.”

From Tim Krieder in The New Yorker: “The novel embodies the very virtues it exalts, the same virtues that probably relegate it, like its titular hero, to its perpetual place in the shade. But the book, like Professor Stoner, isn’t out to win popularity contests. It endures, illumined from within.”

Oh yes, just one more thing: I forgot to mention that there is a very well written love story that occurs in the last third of the novel!