- Charlotte Gray (Author)
Flint & Feather: The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake. Harper Flamingo (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Linda M. Morra
Charlotte Gray’s Flint & Feather is the most recent in a succession of biographies about the fascinating and enigmatic Canadian writer and performer, Pauline Johnson. Being the child of a mixed marriage—her father was a Mohawk Chief, her mother was British—Johnson found herself increasingly frustrated at the turn of century in Canada when First Nations cultural, social, and political expressions were rigorously circumscribed. A woman of extraordinary strength and passion, Johnson continues to find an attentive audience in part because of her contributions to Canadian poetry and fiction, but also because of her intriguing personality, cultural background, and lifestyle.
Gray’s book differentiates itself from other biographies since it attempts neither to establish or revise the record (as Garland Foster does in The Mokawk Princess), nor to evaluate the significance of Johnson’s place as a Canadian writer. Gray’s biography assumes Johnson’s literary importance. Nor is her book a scholarly, meticulously documented account of Johnson’s life and literary endeavours, as is Paddling Her Own Canoe, the biography by Carole Gerson and Veronica Strong-Boag. Although each chapter is accompanied by a brief explanation of sources, biographical details are not precisely noted and the index only partially refers to what the book contains. Also, the writing style is informal: its colloquial approach, which broadens its appeal and renders the material easily digestible, has its difficulties. At moments, Gray delineates scenes with a glibness that undermines what is otherwise an intriguing account of Johnson’s life. She describes how Johnson is “escorted from her hotel to her recital, like the praetorian guard around a Roman emperor.” This comparison is distracting because it is out of place. These would be conspicuous oddities in an academic endeavour; in a popular account, however, such lapses are easily overlooked.
As in her previous publications, Mrs. King: The Life and Times of Isabel Mackenzie King and Sisters in the Wilderness: The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, Gray is developing Canadian cultural mythology. She is fascinated by narratives of Canadian women and their contributions to the nation. As the result of previous work, she possesses a sound sense of Johnson’s historical and social context and provides the reader with a sense of orientation in Johnson’s richly populated world. Using both her creative endeavours and the material (letters, diaries, essays and so forth) currently available about Johnson’s life, she delineates possible scenarios with such flourish that her audience will be compelled to continue reading. One will also feel enticed by Gray’s artful use of suspense and mystery: chapters close with unresolved details or questions. If Johnson’s struggle with her cultural legacy, the difficulties involved in straddling the gulf between two worlds, and the mysteries surrounding her personal life (her mother’s unopened death-bed letter, or the locket with the portrait of an unidentified young man) assure the reader of a compelling narrative, Gray’s vibrant and entertaining mode of telling her story secures it.
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MLA: Morra, Linda M. Re-Presenting Johnson. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #182 (Autumn 2004), Black Writing in Canada. (pg. 132 - 133)
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