Power of Stories
- Richard Wagamese (Author)
Ragged Company. Anchor Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Richard Van Camp (Author)
The Moon of Letting Go. Enfield and Wizenty (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sophie McCall
Richard Van Camp’s newest collection of short stories, The Moon of Letting Go, and Richard Wagamese’s latest novel, Ragged Company, are part of a larger shift in contemporary Aboriginal literature in which an entrenched opposition between Native and White communities is less the focus than the internal hierarchies within Native communities. This is not to say that the characters do not encounter overt racism and other forms of discrimination; indeed on a daily basis they confront “NDN-hating people” (Van Camp), as well as a middleclass deeply fearful of homeless people (Wagamese). In Van Camp’s stories, Native and non-Native characters include drug runners, dealers, child molesters, shady school principals, crooked cops, and medicine men who “use their power for bad.” In Wagamese’s novel, while three of the four main characters are Aboriginal, it is their homelessness that triggers an immediate and visceral form of social prejudice. In neither book can a reader assume anything about Aboriginal identity; yet both also demonstrate—in very different tonalities—a commitment to reviving and living up to the ethical principles embedded in certain Aboriginal traditional knowledges, teachings, cosmologies, and, most importantly, stories.
Van Camp is trying to capture, I think, the ambivalent effects of certain changes in Aboriginal politics as they manifest on the ground. In the title story, the narrator notes that even though Rae is now called Behcho Ko and the Dogrib people now call themselves Tlicho, “there was still too much gambling, there were still too many new trucks and empty cupboards.” Despite an apparent renewal of Tlicho-centred principles, the community has forgotten the story about the man who was a bear; as a result, the people overlook the gifts of a powerful medicine man who is feared and dismissed as “the devil.” Moreover, in this “new” social order, prejudice against Dogrib people can resurface. In “The Last Snow of the Virgin Mary,” when Kevin Garner, an 18-year-old who is trying to exit his drug-dealing life, asks for an application form for teacher’s college, the secretary responds incredulously: “‘you, Kevin Garner, want to teach our kids?’” But there are no clear angels or demons here, and the story takes a very funny turn when Kevin, high as a kite, accidentally broadcasts a 1970s porn videotape while working at the regional TV station. Van Camp’s stories are about the sheer exuberance of storytelling as characters fall in or out of lust, become exposed by nosy neighbours, dare to act against the social strictures of the community, or make difficult choices that have unforeseeable consequences. The road to redemption often follows the side routes of chance sexual encounters or dangerous confrontations. Yet as much as the tone is playful and irreverent, ultimately, a strongly affirmative message of personal and social integrity is transmitted.
Both books ask the reader to look more closely at what or who is devalued by mainstream society, and the epigraph by John Steinbeck for Ragged Company could also apply to The Moon: saints and sinners are not easily distinguished. Wagamese’s novel, which is narrated by one retired journalist and four homeless people who win $13.5 million from a lottery, confronts social intolerance of homelessness. For the three Native characters, who have vastly differing degrees of connection to their heritage, homelessness is connected to an ongoing colonial history of enforced diaspora: land dispossession, residential school, foster care, and a lack of educational and economic opportunities. The central question of the novel is how to get back “home,” which is defined as “a truth you carry within yourself.” In this search, One For The Dead, an Ojibway woman who grew up on a reserve and at a residential school but who has lived on the streets since she was fifteen, emerges as the moral centre of the book. The values explored in the novel are explicitly connected to her teachings that draw on her earliest memories of living with her extended family on an Ojibway reserve. The possibility of literally pissing away $13.5 million haunts the characters, all of whom have a history of alcohol abuse; but through conversation, which has profound ethical significance in this metaphysical novel, three of the four characters learn to cope with the life-changing impact of the “gift.” For one character, living inside walls cracks open an unresolved past and triggers insurmountable psychic trauma; yet his dying gesture is to give away all of his money. In part inspired by his example, the characters return the greater part of the money to the community in different forms: through art, training, counseling, hope—and an inner-city ferris wheel operated for free.
The tone of the two books is sharply disparate: Van Camp’s is frolicsome, frisky, darkly humorous; while Wagamese’s is intense, heartfelt, deadly serious. At times, the teenage male narrators in Moon that Van Camp nails so well can grate my feminist sensibilities (though honouring women is a huge theme) and the sincerity of Ragged at times stretches believability (though the gruff character of Digger, as well as the novel’s humour, undercuts this tendency). Both books succeed enormously in conveying the complexities of ethical principles such as respect, honour, and care for all beings while discouraging readers from reaching stereotypical conclusions about Aboriginal teachings.f
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Books reviewed: Committed to the State Asylum: Insanity and Society in Nineteenth-Century Quebec and Ontario by James E. Moran and Where the River Narrows by Aimée Laberge
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Books reviewed: For Joshua: An Ojibway Father Teaches His Son by Richard Wagamese, The Setting Lake Sun by J. R. Lévillé and S.E. Stewart, and The Great Gift of Tears by Heather Hodgson
MLA: McCall, Sophie. Power of Stories. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #207 (Winter 2010), Mordecai Richler. (pg. 179 - 180)
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