- Tomson Highway (Author)
Kiss of the Fur Queen. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Margery Fee
Putting his Crée culture together with so-called "high" Western culture, Tomson Highway takes Canadian literature in a new direction. He adopts a semi-autobiographical approach to his own experiences and those of his younger brother. Born on a trapline and flown out to a Roman Catholic residential school from their small northern community of Eemanipiteepitat, the Okimasis brothers, Jeremiah and Gabriel, are both sexually abused. Despite the horror of the experience (the abusers are likened to the Crée cannibal spirit, Weetigo, feasting on the flesh of the young), Highway’s sense of humour and his understanding of the complicated psychology of the situation make it clear how he himself survived, barely. His brother René died of AIDS, after achieving fame as a ballet dancer, as does Gabriel in the novel. Highway, like Jeremiah, was a promising pianist. The novel is filled with the presence of the Crée trickster, Weesageechak, not to mention Crée stories, and the Crée language itself. The novel begins before they are born, in 1951, when their father Abraham becomes the "first Indian" to win the "Millingdon Cup World Championship Dog Derby." The picture of him, winner of the dog race, being kissed by the Fur Queen, winner of that year’s beauty pageant, becomes an icon for the two boys. The Fur Queen appears in many guises throughout the novel: sometimes Native, sometimes white, sometimes male, sometimes female. As Gabriel explains, Weesageechak is "the clown who bridges humanity and God—a God who laughs, a God who’s here, not for guilt, not for suffering, but for a good time. Except, this time, the Trickster representing God as a woman, a goddess in fur. Like in this picture. I’ve always thought that, ever since we were little kids. I mean, if Native languages have no gender, then why should we? And why, for that matter, should God?"
Gender and sexuality are fraught with pain and complication for the brothers. Jeremiah, racked with guilt for failing to protect his little brother at school, closes the door of his memory on the past. He cannot, however, shut his eyes to the repeated brutal sexual killings of Crée women in Winnipeg, where he attends high school, deaths that for him link heterosexual sex with violent brutality. His guilt over these killings leaves him impotent and explains his eventual abandonment of the piano for social work on the streets. For Gabriel, sex is an act of revenge, as he repeatedly betrays his priest-like dance mentor and partner with anyone he can seduce, especially priests. It is this mentor who links his dance with the offering up of Christ’s body at the mass: ’"Think of your pelvis,’ suggested Gregory, ’as a plate with an offering.’" By the end, he is offering up death, and we are reminded of the story of how Weesageechak killed the Weetigo, a story that Jeremiah tells Gabriel in the shopping mall. Weesageechak comes to earth as a weasel, "crawls up the Weetigo’s bumhole [...] in order to kill the horrible monster [. ..] and comes back out with his white fur covered with shit." As Jeremiah says, "You could never get away with a story like that in English." In English, certainly, heroes are all white. But the point is more complicated: the shopping mall becames symbolic of the cannibal culture that’s eating us all, and salvation comes through the transformative power of music, dance and theatre.
This power of creativity is closely connected with Crée language and culture. Jeremiah has learned to play the accordion, and his brother has learned to dance, before they go to school. Later, Gabriel saves his brother from an alcoholic depression by connecting him again with music, and the two brothers begin to produce musical works that use Crée culture to reveal the history of colonization in Canada. But their works are not purist. English is a difficult medium in which to write the Crée heart, but Jeremiah, not to mention Highway himself, finally achieves this writing because he wants to connect with Native children growing up in a foreign city: "the rhythm of his native tongue came bleeding through the music." In the mixture of the two cultures they have learned, the brothers become like the Crée hero, the Son of Ayash, who with magic weapons makes a new world.
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MLA: Fee, Margery. Perfect Cree. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 156 - 157)
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