- Basil H. Johnston (Author)
Crazy Dave. Key Porter Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Thomas King (Author)
Truth and Bright Water. HarperCollins (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jennifer Andrews
In an essay titled "Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial," published in 1990, Thomas King proposed some alternative categories for discussing Native literature, ones that do not rely on the arrival of European settlers in the New World to mark the beginning of a distinctive literary tradition. Among the terms he offers to describe Native texts, King includes "associational" literature, which he uses to label the work of contemporary Native writers who depict Native communities. Rather than focusing on a non-Native society or the conflicts between Natives and non-Natives, these texts present the "daily intricacies and activities of Native life." According to King, those who write associational literature usually reject the "climaxes and resolutions" that are valued by non-Natives. Instead, they emphasize the interactions of the community without necessarily creating conventional models of the hero or villain; the plot line tends to be flat and to resist formulaic kinds of closure.
In Truth & Bright Water, King clearly reasserts himself as an author of associational literature, creating a picture of a community that is forceful in its critique of nationalist politics and, at the same time, less interested in overturning the foundations of white, Western culture. Truth & Bright Water is a quieter text. Yet King retains elements of the cross-border humour evident in his earlier works. For example, the title refers to the two towns that are at the centre of the narrative: Truth, located on the American side of the border, and Bright Water, situated in Canada. With this framework in place, King explores questions of identity, history, and memory from a distinctly Native perspective.
Truth & Bright Water is narrated by a young boy, aptly named Tecumseh, who spends his summer working for Monroe Swimmer, a locally born Native artist who comes back to the Prairies after gaining an international reputation for his ability to restore paintings. At the same time, Tecumseh is trying to solve a mystery that he and his friend Lum have witnessed at the river that divides Canada from the United States. One night, they watch a woman plunge over a cliff into the waters below, only to disappear from view and, shortly after, they discover a skull that they presume was hers. Meanwhile, Tecumseh aids Monroe in his attempts to restore a lost Native past by literally painting a Methodist church in Truth out of existence and by scattering iron buffalo sculptures across the Prairies. His efforts become part of the puzzle that the boys try to solve, a mystery that involves racial and sexual crossings as well as the symbolic return of the bones of Native children to the reserve—children whose skeletons have been relegated to obscurity in museum drawers by white anthropologists. This conflict with white cultural values is explicitly framed by the day-to-day activities of the Native community, and the narrative unfolds without the "ubiquitous climaxes and resolutions that are so valued in non-Native literature." Although the mystery that opens the story is solved, many other questions posed by Tecumseh remain unanswered. For example, the concluding scene is notably open-ended. Tecumseh finds his mother trimming a vase of flowers from a mysterious admirer, and when he asks her about the source of the flowers, she remains silent; Tecumseh never learns the admirer’s identity.
Even King’s intertextual references to the Hollywood icon, Marilyn Monroe, are placed within a Native context and read through Native eyes. Lucy Rabbit, a fixture in the local community, is obsessed with Monroe and dyes her dark hair blond, a gesture that leaves her with flaming orange locks. Tecumseh and Lum assume that Lucy is trying to pass as white but, as they soon find out, their presumptions are wrong. Lucy tells them that rather than bleaching her hair to look white, she thinks that Marilyn Monroe was Native and feared the discovery of this secret by the press and the public. Thus, Lucy explains, she dyes her own locks to show the dead movie star "that bleaching your hair doesn’t change a thing." This performative aspect of King’s text is mirrored and reconfigured through Monroe Swimmer’s own use of blonde wigs and other disguises, which comically contests the presumption that Natives—on both sides of the border—really just want to be white.
Basil Johnston’s Crazy Dave is an equally quiet and compelling text. It recounts the story of one of Johnston’s relatives, Uncle David, an Ojibway man born with Down’s Syndrome who lived his life on the Cape Croker reserve and comes—poignantly—to represent the importance of community and the struggle to cope with various kinds of marginality. Instead of simply narrating Dave’s life, Johnston creates a picture of his extended family that is inclusive rather than exclusive and avoids reductive judgements or conclusions about the actions of various characters, including Johnston’s own father and mother. Much of Johnston’s work laments the "passing of tribal languages and cultures" and thus endeavors to record both the past and present from a distinctly Native perspective in a manner that shows tribal cultures as still alive and important today.
With Crazy Dave, Johnston strikes a careful balance between accessibility and inclusion. As he explains in the introduction to the text, "Crazy Dave is not meant to represent the complete story of Dave McLeod or the history of Cape Croker.... [I]t is but a glimpse of the community and its politics and the times that served as the little world in which Dave tried to do what others did, and tried to be what others were, but could not be." Though the book—which blurs the boundaries between history and fiction, familial lines and communal relations—may seem intimate at first, much of Johnston’s narrative depends on silences and gaps that maintain a distance between those who are part of the local tribe and White readers who remain outsiders. Johnston highlights this distinction at the conclusion of his introduction when he notes that "[t]he stories and opinions I have used as sources for this book will not be found in the band council minute book, or in the diaries of the clergy ... but are stored in the memories of the older generation still living." The stories that constitute Crazy Dave become snapshots of a community that are never fully accessible or explained. Appropriately, Johnston includes Dave’s own language in the text alongside English and colloquial Ojibway words and phrases, all of which remain untranslated. And even when Johnston does explore conflicts between White authorities and members of the Native reserve, he remains focused on the local tribe, without feeling compelled to explain or justify the Native perspectives being put forth.
David’s death marks the official end of the text. This abrupt halt to a voluminous life story—the last ten years of David’s life and his sudden death are summarized in less than a page—becomes a way for Johnston to subvert formulaic conclusions and ensure that the stereotypical image of the Native as a "dying breed" is not rein-scribed through Crazy Dave. The text’s epilogue offers a memorial to Dave. It also becomes an urgent reminder that Dave is a model of stubbornness that the Ojibway need to heed, if they are to retain their unique culture and language in an era of white pressure to assimilate.
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MLA: Andrews, Jennifer. Making Associations. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #168 (Spring 2001), Mostly Drama. (pg. 151 - 152)
***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.