- Armand Garnet Ruffo (Author)
Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie Belaney. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Grey Owl (Author)
Tales of an Empty Cabin. Key Porter Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Stephanie McKenzie
One assumes that Key Porter’s decision to reissue Grey Owl’s last book, Tales of an Empty Cabin, had something to do with the fact that Richard Attenborough directed a popular, yet poor, movie about Grey Owl in 1998. One might assume so because Key Porter’s text is limited by its lack of a preface or afterward. There is a short, introductory "Note on the Author" which gives bare information about the counterfeit guise Archie Belaney adopted and which praises Grey Owl for his "passion for nature" and his "empathy for the land that nurtured him." However, there is neither an explanation why Key Porter picked up the publishing rights to Tales of an Empty Cabin nor any indication why this text was reprinted at a time when contemporary Native literature is thriving and when debates about appropriation of voice have been challenging old publishing practices.
The text is attractive, though. The cover boasts a seductive photo of Grey Owl which was taken by W. J. Oliver and which shows Grey Owl sitting pensively on his canoe in front of one of his famous log cabins. This printing also includes a number of photos which, aside from one snapshot of Archie Belaney as a thirteen-year-old in Hastings, England, all capitalize on the solitary, adult Grey Owl who preferred time alone, or time alone with his beavers, to time with his numerous wives.
Published a year before Key Porter’s reissue of Tales of an Empty Cabin, Armand Garnet Ruffo’s response to the enigma of Grey Owl, Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie Belaney, is one of the finest books I have read for quite some time. The Mystery of Archie Belaney is poetic, historical biography, and it is every bit as thorough as Lovat Dickson’s popular biography, Wilderness Man: The Strange Story of Grey Owl (Macmillan 1973). Ruffo provides a chronological account of Grey Owl’s life, imagining Archie Belaney’s years as a troubled child in Hastings, re-creating Grey Owl’s adventures in Temagami, Temiskaming, Bisco, Temiscouata, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and tracing his harried lecture circuit in England, Canada and the United States. The Mystery of Archie Belaney is also a fantastic love story. Grey Owl’s loss of Anahareo plagues Ruffo’s readers. Ruffo leaves his readers wishing there were one more poem which defied recorded history and which permitted these lovers one more moment together. Above all else, though, this is the story of a writer. Ruffo has identified Grey Owl as an artist, and Ruffo’s book is, more than anything, a tribute to a solitary soul who must write, even to the point of death.
The Mystery of Archie Belaney is as conflicted as Grey Owl himself, but, unlike Grey Owl, Ruffo’s poetry boasts of its contradictions and does not try to cover them up. Indeed, the tension which The Mystery of Archie Belaney creates is the book’s greatest strength. Ruffo does not condemn Grey Owl’s decision to be "an immigrant ex-trapper from England, / [who] promote[s] an indigenous philosophy for Canada" ("Archie Belaney, 1931"), although Ruffo does take some playful jabs at his hero. Ruffo portrays Grey Owl as the conflicted counterfeit he was—as a Brit-turned-Indian, a confused bigamist, a knife-wielding drunk, and a proponent of animal rights and aboriginal values. But he does not deem Grey Owl to be one of those "other so-called Great Canadians / who pass and continue to pass their kind of legacy / on to their heirs, always at the expense of the country" ("Grey Owl, 1936"). Ruffo’s readers must decide what to make of this tale, this memory, this man. There is great sympathy here for Grey Owl, especially in that opening poem which depicts Archie Belaney as a scared child, distraught beyond belief that his father, as he has come to understand it, has left him to live "out there / among the Red Indians" ("Influences").
Published in 2001, Ruffo’s next poetic response to a well-known historical figure, At Geronimo’s Grave, is not as strong as The Mystery of Archie Belaney. Here, Ruffo’s narrator tries to commune with the past and with Geronimo in an attempt to understand the present and to offer up a prayer for those who are "lost to this century / turned highway" ("She Asked Me"). However, this collection is not as cohesive a work as The Mystery of Archie Belaney. Moving as it does between unknown characters who speak from the present about love, the destruction of aboriginal cultures, and the environment and specific characters who remember Geronimo and what he fought for, this text does not entice its readers to bond with Geronimo in the same way as the readers of The Mystery of Archie Belaneybond with Grey Owl. Ruffo loses his readers’ interest somewhat when he moves into the abstract and philosophizes in a general way ("Contemplating Surrender," "Birth of the Sacred," and "Raining Ice" are notable examples), and his writing is strongest when he is more concrete and when his poems respond to specific epigraphs which provide an immediate frame of reference. For example, "World View," which is prefaced by the explanation that "suicide in Canada among Native people between the ages of 12 to 25 is the highest in the world," is a shocking and memorable record of the "walking wounded."
The collection grows stronger toward the latter half of the second section, "Drum Song." Here, Ruffo’s polemical and prose-poetic style captivates readers, and it is at this moment that one is reminded that this is a style which has been mastered, and, perhaps, created anew, by a significant number of contemporary aboriginal authors in Canada. One is reminded here of Maria Campbell, Lee Maracle, Thomas King, Jeannette Armstrong, and Greg Young-Ing who write crafted, poetic essays which are not choked by theoretical language but by a desire to tell readers something important and by a desire to be understood.
These concerns aside, my favorite poem in this collection is "Rockin’ Chair Lady," the story of Native jazz singer Mildred Bailey who," ... [b]ound for the city, /... got a job with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra .. . and hit the jazz scene / big time, in a world of big band swing." This poem is as strong as any of those included in The Mystery of Archie Belaney, and along with both of these collections, announces the arrival of a gifted and important voice in both contemporary Canadian and Aboriginal literary history.
- Ecce Homo by Kerry McSweeney
Books reviewed: Testament by Nino Ricci
- Sage and Silly by Nicholas Brown-Considine
Books reviewed: Down by Jim Long's Stage: Rhymes for Children and Young Fish by Pam Hall and Al Pittman, Messengers of Rain and Other Poems for Latin America by Claudia M. Lee and Rafael Yockteng, The Night Walker by Martin Springett and Richard Thompson, and Two Shoes, Blue Shoes, New Shoes! by Sally Fitz-Gibbon and Farida Zaman
- Probabilities of Life by Ulrich Teucher
Books reviewed: Ostend by Francois Gravel and Last Seen by Matt Cohen
- Mennonite Masterpiece by Barbara Pell
Books reviewed: Sweeter Than All the World by Rudy Wiebe
- Reading Pleasure by Alison Calder
Books reviewed: What Casanova Told Me by Susan Swan
MLA: McKenzie, Stephanie. Chasing Tales. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #177 (Summer 2003), (Duncan, Wiebe, Jameson, Thérault, Martel). (pg. 149 - 151)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.