Celia’s Song by Lee Maracle

Celia's SongI read the first chapter of this book three times before I continued into the actual story. It had a very powerful effect upon me although I was at a loss for words to explain what effect that was. I think it had much to do with the very first sentence:

“There is something helpless in being a witness.”

This particular witness is not identified for another three or four pages but that is almost irrelevant as far as it relates to what the witness says or experiences. I think I identified totally with the witness.

“No one comes here anymore, just me. I can’t seem to resist coming to the place where everyone died.  Some kind of illness overtook them, burned them with its heat; the monster illness disfigured them before taking their lives. It’s so quiet. ”

Up to this point, any variety of catastrophe might be being described. Given the state of our planet it doesn’t take a super imagination to empathize with the narrator.

The place actually referred to is the site of the last  longhouse in a particular village and “the bones fret inside the decrepit structure. The people were here one day, then gone. Some small part of me resents their departure nonetheless. …Still, I empathize with the petulance that simmers inside the angry bones. The intensity of their rage grows with time. The bones wait; wait for burial, for ceremony, for their final resting place. They shift and rattle their discontent.

“I breathe deep. There is not much I can do but visit and witness for them.”

The witness tells of a two-headed serpent that used to guard the longhouse and was mounted on the front but is now hanging by a thread because no one has fed or acknowledged him in a very long time.

“The humans broke their contact with the serpent when they stopped feasting and singing for him. This breach granted permission to the serpent to slide from the house front and return to sea, but both heads did not want to leave – just one did, the restless head, the one that preferred shadowland. Current living humans did not seem worried about this breach with the serpent. In any agreement, both parties must hold up their end in a timely manner for the deal to be secure. I guess in these days of cars and electric fires, it may not appear all that rational to restore old practices.”

I felt like the words were addressed to me directly, not in the sense that I was responsible for any of the destruction but, in the sense that I too felt and continue to feel like a witness as I learn more and more about the destruction that is being perpetrated upon this planet and upon its people.

I think about all we have lost and have yet to lose and I understand the “intensity of their rage” and I know why they “shift and rattle their discontent”.

Celia is also a witness. Our narrator thinks: “I need to witness this. There is no one else. The screaming wind, the flying debris, and the pelting rain are too much for me.” Celia hears the narrator. She is watching a severe storm. She hears the narrator say” “This is how it is to die in a war, nothing heroic about it.” Celia knows this to be true.

The narrator repeats: “I am a witness. I am obligated to watch the destruction.”  Don’t many of us feel this far too often these days? I had never quite figured out what it was I felt as I learned more and more about the devastation of our world. Witness is the perfect word to describe what I felt and continue to feel: witnessing is what we do and what we witness is a source of pain and deep disappointment and/or sadness.

Celia thinks she hears the bones in the longhouse talking: “Someone has to pay for the decades of neglect. Someone has to appease our need for respect.” “This is the first time she’s heard bones talk.”

Celia is a seer; the narrator is a shape-shifter who most commonly appears as a mink. Celia’s homeRavensong is in southwestern British Columbia. She has a large family, all of whom this reader enjoyed meeting and recognizing their uniqueness and their simultaneous universality. Many of them appear in Ravensong, Maracle’s 1993 novel, which I have now started to read. I am so glad to have this novel and to learn more about the characters in Celia’s Song. This will expand the world I have been immersed in in Celia’s Song and which I know I will have to return to after I read Ravensong. Opening Ravensong was  rather like finding an old family album that one didn’t know was still around or meeting a person who knew all the people you had met in a town you used to live in but haven’t seen for decades.

In Celia’s Song, the intimacy established by Maracle’s voice is  something I have not come across very often. An interviewer recently stated in Quill & Quire that she was aware of “the response of my  body and my emotions” and of the high degree to which she trusted the author. She also believed, as I did,  that her response had something to do with the opening sentence cited above: “There’s something helpless about being a witness.”

The interviewer (Leanne Simpson) is an indigenous woman and she wrote that she knew the novel was going to take her “to some dark places” and that she would have “to witness what was there and face” herself and “things that happened” in her own life. I am not an indigenous woman but I had the same experience. Maracle said that she “was looking for the everyday language that is so beautiful when we’re talking about difficult subjects.” She says that she “wanted the person reading it to be totally relaxed, so the language is quite soft all the way through. It’s as beautiful as I could make it. It’s as true and honest and deep as it needs to be so we can swim in it and come out with understanding.” In my reading experience, Maracle succeeded in all those things.

For me…probably my top read for 2014.

Also reviewed in 2014: Daughters Are Forever which will probably tie with Celia’s Song for the position of my top read this year!