Keeping Time

  • Daniel Grenier
    The Longest Year. Arachnide Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Maggie Siggins
    Scattered Bones. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Stephen Dunning

Scattered Bones, Maggie Siggins’ first novel, evidently arises out of long-standing concerns characterizing her career “as a reporter, columnist, magazine writer and news editor.” In 2005, she wrote Bitter Embrace: White Society’s Assault on the Woodland Cree. In the novel, written twelve years later, she chronicles the deadly effects of the incursion of white Europeans into the lands of the Rock Cree living in and around Pelican Narrows, in what is now Saskatchewan. The structure of the book, however, suggests that she is equally interested in exploring the ways in which European chronology tragically disrupts the Cree’s connection to nature’s deep rhythms.

The novel’s prologue recounts the brutal massacre of the Cree by the Sioux in the summer of 1730, a historical event that proves only loosely pertinent to the novel proper, which is organized temporally around the intrusive, though brief, visit of American author Sinclair Lewis to Pelican Narrows in July 1924. Drawing on various sources listed in the acknowledgements, Siggins cleverly structures the work in sections composed of several short chapters. Each section is narrated from a different character’s point of view and focuses on some event linked to Lewis’ visit, thereby providing a range of attitudes toward the First Nations, running from arrogant self-interest to penitent self-deprecation. Siggins also avoids potential charges of appropriation of voice by restricting her third-person limited narration to characters sharing (to varying degrees) a European heritage. Moreover, each section includes detailed backstories on the narrators, which cumulatively offer a fairly comprehensive historical perspective on the complex, agonistic world of Pelican Narrows.

And there is no doubt that the author’s allegiances lie firmly on the side of the Cree, since the only fully sympathetic European characters repudiate their own culture (especially religious culture) to embrace Cree sensibilities. Siggins’ capacity to enter imaginatively into the perspectives of all of her characters, however, may work against the text as a whole by eliciting qualified sympathy for those whose actions and attitudes the novel otherwise treats as reprehensible. Both the Anglican priest, Ernst Wentworth, and the trader, Arthur Jan, fall into this category. By generating sympathy for these characters, Siggins introduces a dissonance between the philosophical/political agenda of the work and its emotional centre of gravity. Despite this, the novel engagingly chronicles the perennially destructive effects of European culture on the Cree, and celebrates the capacity of Indigenous peoples to reassert their autonomy.

Daniel Grenier’s The Longest Year explores some of the same themes as Siggins’ work, beginning with its prologue’s treatment of the Trail of Tears (1838) and ending with the epilogue’s description of a drunken fight between two First Nations men in Montreal (2000). Grenier’s interests, however, prove far more ambitious than such a bracketing would suggest. Indeed, this work attempts something approaching the scope of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. And it is to the credit of both Grenier and his superb translator, Pablo Strauss, that it largely succeeds.

The novel’s central conceit is that certain persons born on February 29 age at only one quarter of the rate of “non-leapers,” allowing one of the main characters’ lives to span much of Quebec’s history. As with Saleem Sinai in Rushdie’s work, Aimé Bolduc’s provenance reflects (what are apparently for Grenier) the political realities of Quebec’s inception, Bolduc being the product of a vulnerable French waif and a viciously abusive British officer stationed in Quebec City.

But the novel does not trace Bolduc’s life chronologically. Rather, ranging over many places in the Appalachians (and beyond), it ingeniously traces a dialectic between past and present, largely from the point of view of two of Bolduc’s distant descendants, one of whom, Albert Langlois, becomes obsessed with determining the exact historical trajectory of his extraordinary ancestor. Langlois’ son, Thomas, resists this obsession, however, perhaps because he does not share Bolduc’s longevity, despite also being a “leaper.” Although sympathetic to his father’s quest to recover his ancestor, he chooses instead to work toward a future that depends on science rather than on a mystical past. Grenier may be offering a corrective to that strain of nationalist nostalgia in contemporary Quebec society captured by the rallying cry, “Je me souviens.” Whether the global utopian dream Grenier offers here will prove more appealing than the parochial past he gently rejects will, of course, depend on a reader’s political and philosophical allegiances. But even those skeptical of transhumanist promises to achieve immortality through human ingenuity must salute what Grenier attempts here. This is a deeply intelligent, well-researched, beautifully translated, and markedly ambitious work



This review “Keeping Time” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 ( 2018): 152-154.

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