Hell Will Not Prevail
- Lorne Dufour (Author)
Jacob's Prayer. Caitlin Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Robert Arthur Alexie (Author)
Porcupines and China Dolls. Theytus Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Madelaine Jacobs
When humans engage in indescribable horror, the most evocative use of the English language may be to ask a rhetorical question. In Porcupines and China Dolls, the heart of Robert Arthur Alexie’s protagonist roars, “How the fuck do you describe something like this?” When there are no answers, the best response to pain is to stand and walk together. In this way, community strength is shared and no one is isolated by their sorrow. Being together is the seat of joy and resiliency in communities where some find it impossible to continue to be at all. The theme of journeying together on the never-ending path of healing from brutal assimilative state programs connects Alexie’s work to Lorne Dufour’s Jacob’s Prayer. Dedicated to the women and families torn by disappearance and death along Canada’s Highway of Tears, the challenge of articulating Jacob’s Prayer is evident in the thirty-four year span between the tragic central event and the publication of Dufour’s beautifully woven poetry and prose.
Porcupines and China Dolls uses narrative to uncover unrelenting truth that pierces through individual differences to the empathic core of common humanity. Alexie’s statement that words “can’t describe shit like this” is extraordinarily powerful. Although the agonizing abuse of characters set in Aberdeen, Northwest Territories was much more widespread than demons of alienation and shame led them to believe, immense supernatural power was required to impel them to purposefully acknowledge what occurred in the dark places where they were confined as children. Alexie’s insistence on expressing the horror that the Residential School system wrought in First Nations communities is poetically magnificent. The “shit” is seeing your children taken away, “knowing their brown bodies were going to be scrubbed by white hands . . . knowing they were going to be forever ashamed . . . knowing they were going to cry that night . . . knowing it was going to sound like a million porcupines screaming in the dark . . . knowing there was not a thing you can do about it.” With the double-entendre inherent in the protagonist’s use of sex and intoxication to bury the self-directed question “who’re you,” Alexie is a blacksmith pounding the English language until it can be put to his own purposes.
Jacob’s Prayer springs from Lorne Dufour’s encounters with wounds incurred through colonial attempts to alienate indigenous Canadians from their lands, identities, and family structures. Dufour came to Alkali Lake as a schoolteacher to join John Rathjen in a community initiative to reopen a school as the First Nation emerged from the colonial legacy of alcoholism. Rathjen and Dufour were adopted into the community as they built individual educational success plans for students and promoted holistic educational methods that valued indigenous knowledge. Tragedy struck Alkali Lake in 1975 when every-man-for-himself logic was favoured over the cooperation required for survival. Rathjen and Dufour had been attempting to build bridges of reconciliation between the owner of a large ranch and the adjacent First Nation who were allocated a small reserve. The landowner was on the Lake preparing a goodwill gesture of a fireworks demonstration when the wind overturned his boat. It was too cold, he was too far out, and other boats were at too great a distance for a safe rescue. Rathjen courageously determined that he would attempt a rescue and a skeptical Dufour joined his friend in swimming out to the landowner with a long fence railing. Dufour thought that the best chance for survival was for all three to swim back together buoyed by the railing and the boat’s sole life ring. Even though his rescuers had risked their lives to swim with him, the landowner decided to swim independently with the life ring. Rathjen drowned. The landowner was rushed home to sit before a fire with a blanket wrapped around his wet clothes while he waited for a doctor. His heart stopped. Dufour was treated with an effective indigenous method by Jacob, a man whose daughter had died assaulted and naked on the side of a gravel road. For Jacob, treating Lorne Dufour was a prayer.
Lorne Dufour’s Jacob’s Prayer and Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls are prayers for healing. These prayers are not recited over the heads of fearful children who do not understand their meaning: they are true prayers grounded in the sacred dirt of life. As witnesses of the filthy legacies of colonialism, Dufour and Alexie call First Nations to come together with real hope for healing.
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MLA: Jacobs, Madelaine. Hell Will Not Prevail. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 110 - 111)
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