Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway

Finalist for the 1998 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Fiction Book of the Year

Finalist for the 1998 Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award

Tomson Highway is one of Canada’s best known playwrites, most notably the author of The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, both of which are Dora and Chalmer’s Award winning plays. Published in 1998, Kiss of the Fur Queen is Highway’s first and only novel; containing many autobiographical points, this book takes on a lot of issues. In North American Native literature there has been a trend of authors either being too hard on their own culture or glossing over the harsher realities of Native life. Highway, a Cree from northern Manitoba, walks a fine line between these two extremes with his writing. This novel takes place over the course of around 35 years; looking at how Natives were treated in Catholic residential schools, sexuality, art, and family.

The story focuses on a pair of brothers, Jeremiah and Gabriel Okimasis, and their journey from birth to young adulthood; in each of the six parts of the book, a different stage of the brothers lives are narrated. As you start to read this it takes a few chapters to really get into the book and get used to the language. Canadian Native lit is often written with the same style as the oral narrative, which is an important piece of their culture; if you were to read a few pages out loud this will be very apparent. The dialog is as beautiful as would be expected from a playwrite of this caliber.

The topics and themes of this story are very serious subjects and are, at several points in the novel, very difficult to get through, mainly because of Highway’s vivid writing. The Okimasis brothers are representative of the Native community as a whole in the early fifties; they are being pulled away from their Cree culture and thrust into the world of Catholicism and the indoctrination that would come with attending a residential school. There are horrifying scenes of abuse and molestation as well as heartbreaking scenes of torment directed towards the only two Natives at this school. As the story progresses the focus turns to Gabriel’s sexuality. As he confronts his homosexuality, in a time when this was not overly accepted, he descends into promiscuity and prostitution with constant flashbacks of the abuse he suffered at the hands of the priests. This part of the novel is so beautifully written but so hard to endure. There is so much pain in Gabriel’s life and past that he really doesn’t stand a chance to live a so-called “normal” existence.

My one criticism of this book, and it is not exactly a flaw of the writing, likely more so a flaw with this reader, the details used when Highway is writing about dancing and music are so detailed, with so much technical terminology, it is sometimes difficult to understand what exactly is being said. Jeremiah and Gabriel, eventually become a world-class musician/playwrite and dancer respectively. These details though certainly give the story a level of depth and believability when looking at the brothers passion for their arts.

This is a very sad book; at points there seems to be very little hope for the characters, and even at the end of the novel, it could be argued there is still none. In a short review it is impossible to touch on everything this book looks at. This is the type of novel academics could spend years and countless articles looking at. A beautiful novel, a moving novel, and an eye opening novel, I think Kiss of the Fur Queen will definitely be looked at as one of the great Native novels of its time along side Three Day Road and Green Grass, Running Water.

6 responses

  1. When I first heard Highway read, it was…magical. We were sitting in a meadow at the Eden Mills Writer’s Festival, and he read well, from the beginning of the book.

    And when I read it myself, I did very much enjoy the beginning, and the style of writing. But unlike Thomas King’s Green Grass or other novels, the material was handled in a way I thought quite bitter. I prefer King’s approach to the “Indian problem” (their words, not mine!), and Highway’s book was ruined for me because his own voice seemed too loud. Certainly the magic of the beginning juxtaposed to the tragedy of what happens to the boys later is purposeful and makes sense on all levels. The loss of innocence, of magic, is precisely the point, or at least one of the points. So it’s not that I lament, but rather the way the story seemed to come on too strong. At least for me. It’s been at least 12 or so years since I read it. I should read it again to see what I think of it and see if my impression has changed.

    I don’t remember being confused by terms and such, and I’m not familiar with dance or music terminology, either. Perhaps I was but didn’t pay that any attention? I don’t remember.

    1. That’s interesting, I thought the exact opposite when it comes to looking at Native issues. I always thought King was a little too glossy when it comes to looking at the realities of their lives.

      One thing that did slightly get in the way for me when I was reading, and I didn’t put this in my review because it wouldn’t be a problem for most people, was when I was in university I took a course where The Rez Sisters was required reading. I wrote a term paper on this play and did a lot of research on Highway, the central plot of the brothers is very autobiographical, almost to the point where you see the wizard behind the curtain. But on the other hand it does give a certain authenticity to the story.

  2. Ah! So that’s what it was, when I said his own voice was too strong. Makes sense now, and yet I still don’t forgive it! 🙂

    I disagree that King glosses over stuff. He can be quite pointed. Have you read A Short History of Indians in Canada? It’s brilliant. And having studied Green Grass in university, I didn’t think it glossed over at all!

    But different strokes for different folks. I don’t think it needs to be brutal and raw; we already know. And sometimes more subtle, if it is, produces a more positive response. The difference is, say, though this might be extreme, between Lewis and Tolkien, where Lewis was far more hit-you-over-the-head with his Chronicles than Tolkien (who argued his books weren’t allegory at all but who was Christian and that’s bound to show up, and indeed you can find it if you want to) ever was.

    Not the greatest example, but do you know what I mean?

  3. Hmmm, I should rephrase what I said about it not needing to be brutal or raw because we already know. That didn’t sound right at all. I guess what I’m trying to say is I could have done without the bitterness that came through as personal. And I hadn’t a clue it was more or less autobiographical! You know?

  4. […] What a wonderful novel. Definitely a must read. I couldn’t say it any better than this review that I borrowed from The Canadian Book Review. […]

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