- Robert Mullen (Author)
Americas. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Wayne Curtis (Author)
One Indian Summer. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Ruth B. Antosh
Wayne Curtis’s One Indian Summer is a remarkable first novel by a promising writer. The work traces approximately six months in the life of a teenage boy, Steve Moar, who lives on a remote farm in New Brunswick’s Miramichi River Valley. During this period, his life changes in important ways: he falls in love for the first time and experiences the pain of rejection; he recognizes that although he loves the farm and the river, he cannot be content living there for the rest of his life; and he loses his father. Steve’s decision to leave the farm after his father dies marks the end of childhood and the beginning of a new life. Narrated in the present tense by Steve, the novel has an understated, colloquial style that gradually draws the reader into the world of these proud, hard-working potato farmers.
Although the novel is set in the 1950s, the customs and traditions it describes often suggest a time much further back in the past. Tom, Steve’s father, still does his lumbering and haying with a team of horses; the family has no indoor plumbing; and Katie, his mother, bakes her bread and molasses cookies on a woodstove. Folk remedies are preferred to a trip into town to see the doctor, and superstitions are still very much a part of people’s lives.
At the heart of the novel is the Mirimachi River, which is closely linked to the characters’ sense of identity and is never far from their thoughts. There is no glamour here, except in the rugged beauty of the surroundings. Nature’s grip on the lives of the people is apparent on almost every page. Curtis’s gritty descriptions of haying, logging, deer hunting and fishing show us how the seasons dictate the characters’ lives. Steve participates in all these activities in the company of his father, Tom, surely the novel’s most memorable character. Stubborn, hard-drinking and garrulous, Tom combines an earthy common sense with an almost mystical reverence for nature. He claims to believe, for instance, that birds are the incarnation of dead men.
"They come outta nowhere when ya light a fire ta boil," Tom says seriously. "Spirits of the Î¿Î“ woodsmen." The birds crowd closer and eat from our hands, and one pulls at the waxpaper wrapping our sandwiches. "That must be ol’ George Cooper. He’s sa greedy."
Tom is an accomplished storyteller and singer and can recite hobo poetry for hours, much to his son’s embarrassment. In fact, the entire novel is steeped in oral tradition. The tension in the novel comes principally from Steve’s growing sense that he is different from his family and neighbors, none of whom seem interested in leaving the land or changing their way of life. Steve, in contrast, aspires to go to university and become a writer. Only near the end of the novel, as his father is dying, does Steve realize the enormous influence the older man had on his life, by instilling in him a love of the land and a gift for words.
This novel is in places remininscient of Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners, but it is an original and compelling work in its own right. Curtis is not interested in creating a novel of epic proportions, but rather a true and affectionate portrait of poor farmers living in a harsh and unforgiving place. The reader is not a bit surprised that out of this group of hardy, eloquentand self-sufficient people could come a gifted writer.
Robert Mullen’s anthology of short stories explores the interrelationship between Native myths and contemporary, mainstream culture in North and South America. In his strange, elliptical style, Mullen juxtaposes the viewpoints of Native people trying to hold on to their traditions and urban non-Natives who are out of touch with themselves. A key theme of several of his stories is that Native mythologies offer strength and insight to modern city dwellers, as well as to the peoples who originally invented them. The reader is left to ponder what is being lost as these ancient traditions are gradually eroded by the forces of capitalism and technology.
Mullen depicts non-Natives as spiritually impoverished and anxiety-ridden. His characters (who are often nameless) are generally highly educated and hard-driving. Native American myths offer spiritual solace in "Monsters," as a group of neurotic yuppies meet in the desert for a group therapy session. Group members’ descriptions of their personal problems are interspersed with narrations of the Navajo myths they are studying. As the participants read about Native beliefs and rituals, they begin to see that many apply to their own lives. "To heal a crooked life," reads the Navajo text, "first punch holes in it. Release the evil. If you see the container in which the evil is being collected is about to overflow, stop and empty it." At the end of the retreat, one politically correct member questions the ethics of taking Native religious beliefs out of context, to which another participant retorts: "They plug into our electricity . . . don’t they?" Mullen, it would seem, is suggesting that cultural cross-fertilization, resulting in hybrid forms, is beneficial.
Perhaps the most memorable work in this anthology is the prize-winning "Reflections," in which Native and non-Native cultures meet in violent confrontation. In this story, a Native guide, Juanito, leads a botanist into the jungle to gather exotic plants. The scientific expedition is in fact a demonic quest, as the half-mad botanist, Don Federico, desecrates nature and blatantly disregards the jungle Indians’ religious beliefs. His motivation is sheer egotism: he hopes to become famous by discovering a new plant species, and he destroys anything that gets in his way. First he shoots the guide’s beloved pack mules; then he kills a snake that the Indians revere as sacred, and finally, he shoots the old magician who has been accompanying them. He is an example of modern "civilization" gone amuck, a specialist in plants who despises nature. Ultimately, Don Federico is punished for his arrogance: one night he is attacked by mysterious beings that leave him badly injured and unable to speak. We are left to wonder whether the mysterious assailants were, as Juanito believes, the vengeful spirits of the dead mules, or some wild animal. There are many nuances to this tale: it may be read, for instance, as a fable about the perils of ignoring the mysterious power of nature, or as a politico-cultural parable about the dangers of intruding into another culture’s territory without proper understanding and respect. Americas invites readers to value and embrace the riches of diversity.
- Writing Northern Ontario by Robert Gray
Books reviewed: The Sundog Season by John Geddes, Tag Alder Tales by Charlie Smith, and Outcrops: Northeastern Ontario Short Stories by Laurence Steven
- Questions de filiation by Julie Gaudreault
Books reviewed: La rivière du loup by Andrée Laberge and Le fin fond de l'histoire by Andrée Laberge
- Writing Adolescent Despair by Andrew O'Malley
Books reviewed: Giant Despair Meets Hopeful: Kristevan Readings in Adolescent Fiction by Martha Westwater, The Boy in the Burning House: A Novel by Tim Wynne-Jones, and Looking for X by Deborah Ellis
- Power of Stories by Sophie McCall
Books reviewed: Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese and The Moon of Letting Go by Richard Van Camp
- The Alchemy of Stories by Maria J. H. Lerena
Books reviewed: The Canadian Short Story: Interpretations by Reingard M. Nischik
MLA: Antosh, Ruth B. Nature's Grip. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #160 (Spring 1999), (Sweatman, Michaels, Munro, Duncan). (pg. 150 - 151)
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