Wages of Farming
- Susan Haley (Author)
The Murder of Medicine Bear. Gaspereau Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Albert Braz
Susan Haley has acquired a well-deserved reputation as a writer of thoughtful yet entertaining fiction. Her humour is much evident in works such as A Nest of Singing Birds (1987) and Getting Married in Buffalo Jump (1984), both of which were made into movies for CBC television. Haley is more ambitious in her latest novel, her seventh, but the results are not always positive.
The Murder of Medicine Bear is an epic-length saga about a multigenerational Aboriginal family from southern Alberta. As the narrative opens, Marina Smythe, a.k.a. Marina Medicine Bear, returns to the Ochre Reserve, with three young children and penniless, after an absence of over thirty-five years. Marina’s sudden arrival in the community, which she had left when she was adopted as a child, marks the beginning of a searing journey through family and group histories, the cultural and racial encounters between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals, and the complex identities of the mixed-race products of those encounters.
Much is commendable in The Murder of Medicine Bear. For example, part of the reason Marina returns to the reserve is that she is trying to escape her abusive partner, who has threatened to kill her. Haley brilliantly captures the tension within Marina, who becomes so consumed by fear of her would-be murderer that she sees him everywhere, even in places where it is almost certain he cannot be. Haley also succeeds in capturing the byzantine (and overtly chauvinist) intricacies of the Indian Act, in which the children of Aboriginal women who marry whites, but not those of their male counterparts, lose their Aboriginal status and are classified as “whites.” Finally, the author dramatizes how the essential conflict between Natives and non-Natives on the Prairies is not the result of some evil Eastern machinations, but of the cultural-economic imperatives of the settlers and their dependence on agriculture. Indeed, Haley seems to agree with Rudy Wiebe’s observation that the relations between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals in Canada reenact the archetypal conflict between Cain and Abel, in which the agriculturalist invariably–at least until recently–ends up displacing the pastoralist.
However, some problems mar Haley’s novel, not the least of which is the absence of the humour that marks much of her other work. For a text about individual and collective identity, it is puzzling that the people of Ochre Reserve are portrayed as generic Indians, as opposed to, say, Lakota, Cree, or, most likely, Blackfoot. After all, the white family with whom the Medicine Bears become most intimately associated, the Hallourans, are not described merely as European but as Irish. Most significantly, though, in her exploration of the Aboriginal/ non-Aboriginal conflict, Haley does not seem to consider the natural fluidity of all living societies. It would seem possible that even without arrival of the Europeans, Aboriginal life on the Prairies would have to change.
- Giving the West Its Due by Alison Calder
Books reviewed: Banjo Lessons by David Carpenter, Courting Saskatchewan by David Carpenter, Due West: 30 Great Stories from Alberta Saskatchewan and Manitoba by Wayne Tefs, Geoffrey Ursell, and Anita Van Herk, and The Middle of Nowhere by Dennis Gruending
- Return of the Family Romance by Afra Kavanagh
Books reviewed: Feed My Dear Dogs by Emma Richler and A Perfect Night To Go To China by David Gilmour
- Margin, vanguard by Brett Josef Grubisic
Books reviewed: The Winter Gardeners by Dennis Denisoff, An English Gentleman by Sky Gilbert, and Spells by R.M. Vaughan
- A Swing and a Miss by Tony Griffiths
Books reviewed: Baseballissimo by Dave Bidini
- Saving Generations by Don Hannah
Books reviewed: Ragged Islands by Don Hannah and The Valley by Gayle Friesen
MLA: Braz, Albert. Wages of Farming. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #185 (Summer 2005), (Stratton, Compton, Morra, Wylie, Gordon). (pg. 154 - 154)
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