- Dennis Duffy (Author)
A World Under Sentence: John Richardson and the Interior. ECW Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Jim McDowell (Author)
Hamatsa: The Enigma of Cannibalism on the Pacific Northwest Coast. Ronsdale Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by N. E. Currie
In a footnote to the Introduction of A World Under Sentence, Dennis Duffy characterises the setting of Richardson’s fiction by quoting Richard White’s The Middle Ground:"a complicated world that could be both dreamscape and landscape." This statement applies equally well to the world explored by Jim McDowell in Hamatsa. Both Duffy and McDowell are concerned with mapping a borderland between cultures, more often of an imaginary or emotional than a physical geography. The "enigma of cannibalism" in McDowell’s title refers simultaneously to the European assumption that Northwest Coast natives were cannibals, to the ongoing fascination with the idea of cannibalism, and to the possibility that ritual cannibalism was mistaken for the practice of eating human flesh. The "interior" of Duffy’s title refers to the inner world of John Richardson, to the history and narratives of "Southwesto" and its American neighbours, and to the psyche of the colonial writer straddling British, Canadian, American, and possibly Amerindian cultures.
Jim McDowell begins Hamatsa by noting that a series of "vague, often contradictory" footnotes about cannibalism on the Northwest Coast led him to the research that became this book. Divided into two sections, it aims to investigate those footnotes by asking a series of questions: what does the historical record say? How has it been interpreted? What is the connection between "oft-alleged gustatory cannibalism and largely overlooked ritual cannibalism"? What might ritual cannibalism mean for a society? Part One, "Red Smoke," looks at the record of European contact with the Northwest Coast beginning with the published records of James Cook’s third voyage whose editor, Bishop John Douglas, created the perception of cannibalism on the coast. McDowell traces the influence of this perception on later British, Spanish, and American explorers and furtraders. He examines a variety of sources in detail, concluding that "the documentary evidence has failed to demonstrate that any Northwest Coast Indians actually engaged in acts of gustatory cannibalism." Instead, he argues, Europeans misinterpreted evidence of ritual cannibalism.
McDowell’s real interest lies in the book’s second section, "White Flames," in which he examines the anthropological record, particularly the work of Franz Boas and George Hunt, to consider the role and purpose of the winter ceremony known as hamatsa. McDowell finds in it a cosmology with "themes of ritual death and rebirth, of continuity with the past in the face of social devastation, of ultimate reliance on the power of transformation and resurrection" more and more necessary to manage the disruption caused by colonisation.
McDowell’s ultimate purpose in Hamatsa is to explore and celebrate cultural self-discovery; he sees an ongoing examination of early encounters between Europeans and First Nations as an "act of cultural renewal" for the descendants of those Europeans. What we often find, of course, is that the impetus for European discovery—the excitement of learning about new cultures—was transformed into "avarice, arrogance, ruthlessness, and brutality," just as a meeting between two cultures was transformed into a "one-way act of discovery." McDowell closes by considering what the hamatsa might teach non-Native North American society, a discussion which seems unrelated to and less compelling than the explores a different set of cultural boundaries: those between the nations struggling for political, economic, and psychic dominance in North America. Duffy’s concern is the "interior" of the continent and the ways in which its history and cultures shaped John Richardson and his fiction. In similar fashion, the phrase "under sentence" comes to have two, possibly three, meanings: a group of words making a statement—especially in writing; a judge’s decision regarding the punishment of a criminal; and the punishment itself. Thus the title comes to mean both Richardson’s shaping of frontier material in his fiction and a sense of foreboding about the consequences ofthat representation.
By outlining the literary works influencing Richardson’s fiction (beginning but not ending with Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales), apocryphal tales from both sides of the US-Upper Canada border shaping the two societies’ views of themselves, and details of Richardson’s own military and family history, Duffy suggests an emotional and narrative geography ultimately more important for Richardson’s fiction than the physical characteristics of the region. Thus his study examines the social, economic, and cultural structures that shaped Richardson’s world, as well as the different narrative structures that shaped his fiction. Of course, throughout Richardson’s lifetime, all these structures were in flux, the fur-trading frontier losing out to the settlement, the oral family history of the region reduced to rest of the book. Nonetheless, the strengths of this book lie in its author’s detailed examination of the historical and anthropological records, his attempts to locate the idea of ritual cannibalism within the mores of Native (rather than European) society, and his constant reminders that it is up to those of us of European descent to take responsibility for our past in this continent.
A World Under Sentence is shaped by metaphor, and so is at its best exploring the imaginative structures of the "interior." While border or frontier suggests cultural demarcation and difference, immersion suggests a greater fluidity and ease of movement within (rather than between) spaces. The complex mix of genres, tones, and identities we find in Richardson’s fiction was also a feature of his life, in Duffy’s account. Ultimately he argues that Richardson "figur[ed] forth imaginatively the world that he inherited and transcribed as his own. He did so by putting that world into his own words."
The imaginative spaces explored by McDowell and Duffy are marked as much by time as by space. The Northwest Coast was the last continental coastline to be charted by European explorers; Richardson’s colonial frontier extended "from Pontiac in 1763 to Moraviantown in 1813." By elaborating European perceptions of the not-so-new world in the last two centuries, these books demonstrate the continuing interest of what Peter Hulme has called "colonial encounters"—and the continuing importance of what they reveal about the cultures that created them, and ours.
- Art Objects and Family Heirlooms by Renée Hulan
Books reviewed: Powerful Images: Portrayals of Native America by Sarah E. Boehme et al., Looking North: Art from the University of Alaska Museum by Aldona Jonaitis, and Imaging the Arctic by J. C. H. King and Henriette Lidchi
- Wilderness Colony by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Books reviewed: Old Square-Toes and His Lady: The Life of James and Amelia Douglas by John Coldwell Adams and Way Out West: On the Trail of an Errant Ancestor by Michael Shaw Bond
- The Return of the Subject by Bina Toledo Freiwald
Books reviewed: Life-Writing: A Glossary of Terms in Biography, Autobiography, and Related Forms by Donald J. Winslow, Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autography by Jeanne Perreault, and Daughters of Self-Creation: The Contemporary Chicana Novel by Annie O. Eysturoy
- Indirections by Stephen Guy-Bray
Books reviewed: Contra/Diction by Brett Josef Grubisic and Written in the Skin by rob mclennan
- Almosting by Kevin McNeilly
Books reviewed: Apocrypha: Further Journeys by Stan Dragland
MLA: Currie, N. E. Imaginary Geographies. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #157 (Summer 1998), (Thomas Raddall, Alice Munro & Aritha van Herk). (pg. 136 - 138)
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