Winner of the 2014 RBC Taylor Prize
Shortlisted for the 2013 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction
Shortlisted for the 2014 Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature
Shortlisted for the 2013 Trillium Award
Selected for Canada Reads 2015
Two weeks ago I thought, great, I have 14 days to read the last Canada Reads title, lots of time to finish before the show. Then my wife came down with influenza, then my son did, then I did. So, with all of these flu related distractions, I finished the last Canada Reads 2015 pick with only a day or so to spare. Anyway…
Thomas King is one of Canada’s most respected writers and one of the top Aboriginal cultural figures in the country. It seems in the last few years he has really been at the top of his craft. His 2012 The Inconvenient Indian, prior to being selected for Canada Reads, won the RBC Taylor Prize, one of the most prestigious non-fiction prizes in the country, and his 2014 novel The Back of the Turtle won last year’s GG for fiction. Both titles received nearly universal praise. Thomas King has already had quite the literary career before this current run of greatness – he wrote the contemporary classic Green Grass, Running Water, a GG nominee and Canada Reads contestant in 2004; he was chosen to deliver and write the 2003 Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories; and he’s been shortlisted for numerous awards, was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2004, and ran for parliament in Guelph for the NDP in 2008 coming in a solid fourth. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Thomas King is only the fourth author to have multiple books appear on Canada Reads. He is by far the most recognized name on the show this year, and judging from the chatter on Twitter, blogs, and the various polls on the CBC website, I’d say that The Inconvenient Indian is coming into the show as the frontrunner to win.
This is an interesting book and the one I was most looking forward to reading of the five. A lot has been said about it, the reviews have been stellar, the Goodreads average is very high, and the comments about it for Canada Reads have been warm. But, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of what kind of book this would be. Prior to starting page one, I assumed this would be a straightforward history of Natives in North America. But, The Inconvenient Indian is best described sociological examination of the Native condition through the lens of history. Basically, King tries to answer the question, “How did we (Natives) get here?” He looks at issues including land claims, poverty, prejudices, and politics with a particular focus on the 19th and 20th centuries.
The breadth of what King tackles is impressive. Armed with detailed research on treaties, legislation, history, and his own intellect, the author lays out the story of a people with a critical eye and unrestrained zeal. The strength of this book is King’s conversational tone. At no point does the reader feel like he’s being lectured to by Professor King, PhD; instead, it feels more like you’re sitting down for lunch at the local diner having a chat about current events. The writing is peppered with the author’s trademark wit, personal digressions, and tongue-in-cheek commentary.
This book obviously fits with this year’s Canada Reads theme. For me, it was something of an education. I follow politics in Canada very closely, but the mind only has a finite amount of attention that can be paid to issues, and some are invariably left out. Some people are rather ignorant of foreign policy, some of military issues, education, etc. For me, Native issues are one of those. It’s not that I don’t view it as an extremely important issue; it’s just not one I’ve followed closely. So this book broke a lot of conceptions and I think would be a good addition to academic and school reading lists.
My one problem is with how this book will compete in Canada Reads. It doesn’t have a narrative or characters in the same way as the other fiction and non-fiction books this year. Plus, this title, while it is technically a history, doesn’t follow a linear form of writing; chapters tend to be divided on thematic lines rather than chronologically. This is the inherent problem with comparing fiction to non-fiction. I doubt the discussion on the show will be limited to thematic topics – what happens when discussion turns to character development, dialogue, etc?
Thomas King is a national treasure. He represents so many different facets of Canadian identity. He is Canadian, he’s Native, he’s an immigrant, and he’s very conscious of all of those things. He has become one of the foremost literary commentators on Native issues in North America and one of Canada’s greatest writers period. The Inconvenient Indian will likely become his signature non-fiction work and I think this timely book will definitely be a strong contender on Canada Reads 2015.
Winner of the 2013 Governor General’s Award for Poetry
Katherena Vermette pulled off an impressive accomplishment, winning a Governor General’s award with her first book. North End Love Songs is an incredible collection. I’ve been lucky lately; my last few reading picks have been fantastic. Vermette is Métis and this identity permeates every line of her writing. This is autobiographical poetry of the highest degree, but it takes on a variety of topics. The author blends humour, sadness, hope, hopelessness, and coming-of-age using a style that is a throwback to Modernist American poets like ee cummings.
The most moving part of the collection is the author’s recounting of the disappearance of her brother. I enjoyed these poems for several reasons, mainly though because it addresses so many themes. Vermette tackles the personal sadness that comes with a situation like this; the stereotyping that comes with being aboriginal, including from the police – such as assuming since he’s young and Native he must just be on a bender; and on being Native in general – the good, the bad, and, of course, the ugly.
The structure of poetry is magnificent and, as I mentioned before, is a throwback to Modernist poets. There is no punctuation and the author doesn’t stick to any stylistic constant – be it enjambment, stanza structure, etc. This is free verse in its most pure form. Lines contain as few as a single word and individual poems can range from a few lines to extended sequences over 10 pages. This use of free verse and colloquial north end Winnipeg language really takes you inside the poet’s thoughts. One could even argue that Vermette is using a poetic stream-of-consciousness style in her writing. Finally, my last thought on structure, the poet ties her sequences together with highly intertwined themes, images, and symbolism – be it birds, seasons, holidays, or music.
One more thing I have to throw out there is Vermette’s use of music as metaphor and “image.” I am a huge 80s music fan, specifically, hair metal (Poison, Skid Row, Guns N Roses… I’m actually listening to Great White as I write this). If you are a serious fan of this musical genre, I really think you will get much more out of this book. The sequence “November” is really the thematic climax of the collection, and so much of this section relies on these musical references to help illustrate the speaker’s state-of-mind. The poem “mixed tape” goes as far to use individual songs (I’ve actually created a playlist on Google Play of the songs in this poem if you’d care to listen).
Overall, a great read. This collection is funny in places and gut wrenchingly difficult in places. Vermette pulls no punches and uses her old-school writing style to connect you with the depths of her own soul. Childhood memories, personal pain, music, and North End Winnipeg all shaped this collection of poems in a highly coheasive collection even though the poems are more lyrical than they are narrative. I think that North End Love Songs is a triumphant announcement proclaiming that Katherena Vermette is an important new voice in Native Canadian literature.
Winner of the 1990 Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award
Winner of the 1989 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Play
Shortlisted for the 1989 Governor General’s Award for Drama
Any first year English student knows that in the broadest of senses, there are four genres of literature: fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama – and of course each of these has their own endless lists of sub-genres. Drama is one of the most difficult genres to read and, I would imagine, write. The story is essentially conveyed solely by dialogue and it is primarily written to be performed rather than necessarily read. When reading a play, you are thrown right into the middle of the action, often with very little context and it can sometimes be difficult to get an initial grasp on the story and characters, especially with contemporary drama which tends to push the envelope. The average literature student struggles with drama more than other genres and very very few literary blogs review books of drama. With all of that being said, reading a play can be just as rewarding as any novel or volume of poetry. Canada is very lucky to have more than its fair-share of world-class dramatists: Sharon Pollack, George F. Walker, Judith Thompson, George Ryga, Catherine Banks and Daniel McIvor just to name a few. I’ve been collecting more Canadian plays lately and I’m planning on adding more of the genre to my reading rotation, starting with this selection.
Tomson Highway is one of Canada’s best known playwrights and Native writers in general and his works are frequently included in the curriculum of Canadian literature courses. I’ve previously reviewed his novel Kiss of the Fur Queen on my site. His signature work is, without a doubt, his play The Rez Sisters, the story of a group of women on the Wasaychigan Hill reserve going to the world’s biggest bingo. Today’s selection, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, is the companion and quasi-sequel to The Rez Sisters and takes place on the same reserve. This play uses hockey to bind several misanthropic characters together in a play that is equal parts comedy and almost unbearably dark tragedy.
Right off the bat, I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this as much as The Rez Sisters, which happens to be one of my favorite plays. But, after letting it marinate for a few days I have to admit my opinion of Dry Lips is more favorable than it was when I initially finished. It’s difficult to give this book a proper review without revealing spoilers, but I’ll do my best.
The play has a few arcs that eventually intersect and burst. We have Zachary who wants to open a bakery to bring some prosperity to the reserve and is worried about his wife finding out about his adultery; we have Big Joey who is trying to connect with his son, Dickie Bird – who suffers from severe Fetal Alcohol Syndrome; Pierre who is ecstatic to be the referee in the women’s hockey game; Spooky who uses pious Christianity as salvation from his wild youth; and Simon, a mysterious character that seems to float from situation to situation. The two acts are very well defined; the first act is very comedy heavy while the second is very tragedy filled and difficult to read in certain spots. Throughout the play, the action takes place under that watchful eye of Nanabush – the Trickster, the Christ-esque creature that is often omnipresent in Native literature.
The positives of Dry Lips were all related to Highway’s unflinching and unromanticised depiction of life on the reserve and the inherent problems that go along with it. Violence, alcoholism, poverty, fetal alcohol syndrome, and cultural decay are all taken on in a brutally unforgiving way. This is punctuated with a particularly disturbing scene between Dickie Bird and Patsy. At the end of the play, you are left with neither a pessimistic nor an optimistic feeling. Instead, Dry Lips leaves the reader with a sense of realism. Life on the reserve is ugly and there are no easy solutions.
The negatives are a little harder to put your finger on. The action of the play is very frantic and scattered at times. Obviously this can make the plot and forward momentum difficult to follow, especially since a few of the main characters are essentially reflectors and interchangeable. Also, the stage directions are very detailed and more than are typical in contemporary drama; I think this would likely leave little room for a director to leave their stamp on a production.
All in all, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing is a good, and ultimately, important play. It takes on difficult themes, it uses language creatively, it does interesting things with the Trickster character, and it completes a mythology started in The Rez Sisters. This may not be a play for the casual reader or even a good introduction to Canadian drama. But, for the advanced CanLit reader, for someone interested in Native lit, or for someone with a deep interest in Canadian drama, it is a worthwhile, if not essential, read.
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.