- Larry Loyie (Author) and Constance Brissenden (Author)
As Long as the River Flows. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Tomson Highway (Author)
Caribou Song/ atíhko níkamon. HarperCollins (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Mary Beaty (Author) and Maureen Garvie (Author)
George Johnson's War. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Luther Schuetze (Author)
Mission to Little Grand Rapids. Creative Connections (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Andrea Spalding (Author)
Solomon's Tree. Orca Book Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by John Moffatt
The publication of a new book on First Nations themes for children or young adult readers is a significant event. Any such book has the ability to plant indelible images of Aboriginal culture in the minds of young people who read it. With one possible exception, the titles reviewed here specifically allow children, regardless of background, to explore the unique experiences of First Nations children past and present. Written by both indigenous and non indigenous authors, the texts evoke, often in lyrical terms, the integrity of the specific cultures portrayed, while generating opportunities for further discussion of cultural, spiritual, and historical issues important to the dialogue between First Nations and non native society. Joe and Cody, the young protagonists of Tomson Highway’s Caribou Song/atihko nikamon, live "too far north for most trees" and follow the caribou herds with their parents. The world portrayed in the bilingual Crée and English text and in Brian Deines’s vibrant illustrations blends the modern and the ancient; Highway’s first book for children evokes a way of life in which relevant measures of time are found in the elemental relationships between peo¬ple and their environment. The story refrains from direct comment on the spiritual relationship between Joe and Cody’s "Caribou song" and the caribou herd, so the dramatic arrival of the migrating ani¬mals will allow children to discuss their own understanding of the event’s meaning.
Spiritual communication between nature and First Nations children is also a key theme in Andrea Spalding’s Solomon’s Tree, and here too that communication emerges in art, in the carving of a Tsimshian mask. Traditional spiritual beliefs and practices appear throughout the book; Solomon’s uncle teaches him a song at the beginning of the carving process, and Solomon, wearing the finished mask, dances to the drum at the end. The focus, however, is consistently on the boy’s relationship with the tree from which the mask is carved and whose spirit the mask comes to embody. Solomon talks and listens to the old maple, minimally anthropomorphized in Janet Wilson’s illustrations, and his grief when the tree is blown down in a storm leads his uncle to create the mask as part of a healing process. The text and illustrations follow each major step in the mask’s production. Tsimshian carver Victor Reece prepared a special mask for the story, and an author’s note emphasizes the collaboration between Reece, Spalding, and Wilson in establishing an authentic template for the book to fol¬low in representing First Nations tradition for a wide audience.
Both Highway and Spalding emphasize harmony and continuity between the past and the present, as when Solomon dries his traditional mask in the microwave "three times, at three minutes ... with lots of turns." Values survive technological change and, by implication, social change.
Larry Loyie’s autobiographical As Long as the Rivers Flow also depicts children nurtured within the traditions of their Crée community, but harmony and continuity are threatened by the reality of residential schools. It is 1944 in northern Alberta, and ten-year-old Lawrence and his brothers and sister share in the work and play of the fam¬ily’s summer camp, learn traditional skills and stories under the supervision of relatives, and have adventures that will interest most children in the ten plus age group, as Lawrence takes care of an orphaned owl or encounters a grizzly. Loyie contains the nostalgic tone, however, through the whispered threat of what awaits the children at summer’s end: "[Mama] looked at Lawrence, then lowered her voice even more. He could only hear part of what she said. It was something about prison The unanswered questions that haunt Lawrence make the children’s abrupt removal from home and their family’s pow-erlessness to stop it all the more" devastating.
Parents and teachers will welcome the epilogue which follows the story. Illustrated with personal and archival photographs, it provides a concise overview of the life children like Lawrence experienced in the residential schools, as well as further information on Crée family life.
The late Reverend Luther L. Schuetze’s Mission to Little Grand Rapids: Life with the Anishinabe 1927-1938 might be expected to sit uneasily on the shelf alongside Loyie’s story. This memoir of a United Church missionary’s experience among the Anishinaabeg of the Berens River system straddling the Manitoba/Ontario border necessarily deals with the kind of colonianism for which residential schools were the instrument. However, the Brazilian born Schuetze’s sympathy for the people among whom he and his family lived and worked resists narrow stereotyping on both sides of the cultural divide. His observant, anecdotal account of a society in transition is both informative and entertaining, and supplements existing work on the Berens River people, in particular the well known studies of the American ethnographer Irving Hallowell (who was observing the same community in the same period). The often humorous narrative pays as much attention to the author’s role as husband and father as it does to his challenges as lay minister, teacher, dentist, and doctor a focus that enhances the text as a spiritual autobiography.
Maureen Garvie and Mary Beaty explore a more distant historical past in George Johnson’s War, a historical novel for readers aged twelve and up, set during the American War of Independence. George Johnson, who narrates the novel, is the youngest son of the powerful Sir William Johnson and of Molly Brant, one of the most influential First Nations women in colonial America. George’s war mostly unfolds away from the battlefields, and the novel focuses on his Loyalist family’s efforts to cope with its reversals, under the stubborn leadership of Molly. Garvie and Beaty develop George’s character between the ages of six and thirteen in terms of compet¬ing ambitions and loyalties, as his desire to emulate his father and brothers on the battlefield clashes with a conflicted sense of being both responsible for and dependent on his mother and sisters.
While Molly Brant’s Mohawk identity and prestige among her people are clearly delineated, George’s sense of his dual heritage is implied rather than explored in the novel. We learn that George speaks Mohawk, and that he lives temporarily in various Six Nations communities, but on the whole he remains detached from the Mohawk context. His ambivalence should perhaps be seen as part of a continuum that includes his mother’s traditionalism and his sisters’ cultivation of European manners, as well as the racism they occasionally experience. A similar ambivalence exists in the novel’s treatment of slavery: the Johnsons’ ownership of Black slaves is frankly acknowledged but is not a subject of debate within the novel. While some readers may be troubled by George’s tacit acceptance of slavery, the authors’ decision to avoid moral anachronism in this situation may be seen as an opportunity for younger readers to learn more about an often ignored part of Canada’s history.
- Angry (Nice) Young Men by Len Falkenstein
Books reviewed: Martin Yesterday by Brad Fraser, Cherry Docs by David Gow, and alterNatives by Drew Hayden Taylor
- Children from the Wars Returning by Jonathan F. Vance
Books reviewed: And in the Morning by John Wilson and Brothers Far from Home: The World War I Diary of Eliza Bates, Uxbridge, Ontario, 1916 by Jean Little
- Being Raven by Jo-Ann Thom
Books reviewed: Sojourners and Sundogs: First Nations Fiction by Lee Maracle
- Au pays de l'inexistence by Laurent Poliquin
Books reviewed: écran total by Laurent Chabin and Romans de la poésie by Yves Boisvert
- Quest for Family by Sarika P. Bose
Books reviewed: Ingrid and the Wolf by André Alexis and The Vacation by Polly Horvath
MLA: Moffatt, John. Unique Childhoods. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #181 (Summer 2004), (Wiseman, Livesay, Sime, Connelly, Robinson). (pg. 143 - 145)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.