- Beatrice Culleton Mosionier (Author)
In the Shadow of Evil. Theytus Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Jeannette C. Armstrong (Author)
Whispering in Shadows. Theytus Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Margery Fee
For readers, these two books are long-awaited second novels: Armstrong’s Slash was published in 1985 and Mosionier’s In Search of April Raintree in 1983. Slash was the story of Tommy Kelasket ("Slash") who was caught up in the activism in the sixties and seventies, and then returned to his Okanagan reserve. April Raintree was one of the many Native children "scooped up" by social workers from their parents and fostered out to non-Native homes. Both dealt with dramatic themes of wide concern to many First Nations people, particularly the young. Armstrong’s novel emerged from an attempt to produce a history for young people; Mosionier’s (which has sold nearly 100,000 copies) was written for a young audience, and a revised version for an even younger one was produced at the request of the Manitoba Ministry of Education. These second novels, aimed at an older audience, are written to help heal those whose present lives conceal a past filled with destruction and pain. Both expose how a racist history explains the emotions and lives of contemporary Aboriginal people. Both are semi-autobiographical, dealing with artists who have a strong sense of social justice.
Whispering in Shadows continues the story of an Okanagan activist, this time a woman, Penny Jackson. She works in the orchards of the Interior, and eventually manages, as a single mother with three small children, to go to university, where she studies economics, political science, and anthropology. Becoming a conceptual artist, she is pressured to incorporate Native motifs, what she angrily thinks of as "arrows ploughing into spandex." Finally, she has a confrontation with her agent who wants her to paint something less graphic and disturbing than her works about the destruction of the environment, something "just a teensy titillating and thought-provoking": "Art sells, not politics." She destroys the paintings they are discussing, in the belief that her paintings can only affect rich people, the source of the problem as far as she is concerned, and then turns to the global activist network. Armstrong vividly captures the stress that accompanies work in this field, the plane travel, the constant demands of others, the disconnection from partner, children and family. Worry about superbugs, cloning, mad cow disease, nuclear waste, pollution, biopiracy, the cancer epidemic, the destruction of Indigenous peoples along with their habitat, the loss of biodiversity, junk food: all this consumes Penny. And because she is Aboriginal she is faced with hard truths, such as that even those in the ecological movement focus on protecting land for parks, while ignoring land claims. Penny works through various stages of activism, but finally concludes that the problem is deeper than she thought. She concludes that all human beings are meant to live as her grandparents did, in small closely knit communities with large families, on land with which they are connected through generations of knowledge. This is the local that has been razed for global capitalism, the people swept off to become "workforce" in polluted cities where, "in the absence of the sacred," they become stressed, caught up in the superficial, and unable to live as whole people.
Mosionier’s central character, Christine Pelletier, is also an artist whose connection to nature, particularly wolves, puts her into a troubling conflict with the modern. Her past is a scar, a secret from even those closest to her. The novel continues the story of two Native sisters estranged by having been condemned to different foster homes that was central to In Search of April Raintree. Again, Mosionier proves herself a master at showing how emotional reactions work, how children internalize blame, how insecurity curses those who have never been properly loved. Christine loves wolves and dogs because they are not human—human beings have betrayed her, while animals, even potentially violent ones, prove more loyal. As in In Search of April Raintree, psychological insight and an ability to show how human beings turn against each other are combined in this novel with a complex and sometimes unbelievable plot and rather wooden dialogue. The plot, however, is a mechanism that forces the characters into explosive confrontations with each other and with the past, showing how feelings based on misconceptions can twist whole lifetimes out of shape. What appears to be simply a mystery story becomes, in the end, a story about the monstrosity of the "scoop-up" and the racism that fuelled it, as well as about how a relationship with nature can heal abused and damaged souls.
Of most interest for me in these novels is their determined combination of politics and art. The aesthetic is a problematic category for activists, since it has been ideologically constructed as necessarily empty of politics, a move required to eviscerate it of its obvious force for change. Armstong manages the problem in part by combining intensely lyrical passages, poetry, and personal letters with the rather plain prose style that was the hallmark of Slash. Penny, in a "Letter Never Sent" to a man who almost became her lover, regrets not having gone on with her painting: "I knew that putting images out there changes the world, yet I feared the shadows." Both novels show how important creativity is to the psychological survival of Penny and Christine, although it makes it difficult for them to control their feelings of sorrow, fear and anger. Both novels show how the imagination is vital to all of us, not just to a group classified as artists. Whole cultures are creations and can foster creativity in everyone, not just a selected few. This was the vision of the early Russian Formalists, and it is a recurrent vision of those who reject the slotting of human beings into limited and unfulfilling jobs which leads to "a culture of discontent" ripe for the false promises of happiness provided by advertising, television, and much of what passes for the arts.
- Small-Town Innocence by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Books reviewed: Great Expectations by Grant C. Robinson and Not in my Backyard by Bryan R. Meadows
- Fenced In by Myrl Coulter
Books reviewed: A Map of Glass by Jane Urquhart
- La Polysémie de l'altérité by Jorge Calderón
Books reviewed: Altérité et insularité: relations croisées dans les cultures francophones by Alessandra Ferraro, L'Autre en mémoire by Dominique Laporte, and Practiques d l'ici, altérité et identité dans six romans québécois des années 1989-2002 by Svante Lindberg
- Meetings by Jon Kertzer
Books reviewed: The Almost Meeting and Other Stories by Henry Kreisel and Lola By Night by Norman Ravvin
- Discovery Passages by Lorraine Weir
Books reviewed: Discovery Passages by Garry T. Morse
MLA: Fee, Margery. Shadowed Pasts. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #181 (Summer 2004), (Wiseman, Livesay, Sime, Connelly, Robinson). (pg. 99 - 100)
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