Devil in Deerskins: My Life with Grey Owl. University of Manitoba Press
The Palgrave Handbook of Comparative North American Literature. Palgrave Macmillan
The two books treated in this review may seem remarkably dissimilar at first glance: an edited collection of essays on comparative North American literatures; and a reissued autobiography, once a bestseller, first published forty years ago. Nevertheless, they both lie at the vanguard of recent efforts to resituate Canadian literature and culture in the context of changing scholarly and reading practices. For example, The Palgrave Handbook of Comparative North American Literature is motivated by its aim to integrate Canadian Studies meaningfully into the traditionally US-centred field of North American Studies. Devil in Deerskins, in turn, aims to reintroduce contemporary readers to the once popular, now neglected, autobiography of Anahareo (1906-85), the Mohawk writer, activist, and environmentalist formerly married to Grey Owl.
The five endorsements on the back jacket of The Palgrave Handbook of Comparative North American Literature variously agree that the volume is both comprehensive and transformative. Comprised of seventeen essays that approach comparative literature from various perspectives—from a reading strategy to a discipline—the volume is certainly comprehensive. Its primary achievement is to have gathered together seventeen essays, each offering new perspectives on literary comparison in North America, or new approaches to aesthetic movements (including Modernism and Postmodernism), categories (including regionalism, biculturalism, and multiculturalism), theoretical paradigms (including border studies, transnationalism, and globalization), and cultural perspectives (including African-American, Indigenous, Asian-American, Québécois, and Cajun/Acadian). In her introduction, Reingard M. Nischik identifies at least two main objectives: “charting a new approach to the literatures and cultures of the North American continent” and “chart[ing] relevant methodologies and major issues of Comparative North American Literature.” It is important to note that Comparative North American Literature is an emergent discipline. Indeed, this volume aims in part to define its composite preoccupations and map its territory (hence the repetition of the term “charting” throughout the introduction and in the title of the first of five sections, “Charting the Territory”). In this respect and others, the volume is ambitious, even groundbreaking, and deserves serious scholarly attention. The quality of insight in the majority of contributions is excellent. As I was reading The Palgrave Handbook, however, I was preoccupied by one matter. The introduction defines it as “the very first of its kind in this research area,” meaning that it differentiates the comparative approach to North American literatures from existing hemispheric, continentalist, or borderlands approaches while acknowledging that overlaps exist. Indeed, in general terms, Nischik situates Comparative North American Studies “next to” hemispheric and border studies. This kind of differentiation is not, however, necessarily borne out by the contributions, many of which approach “comparative” studies as discursively or conceptually interchangeable with “hemispheric” or “border” studies. A more explicit introductory engagement with the terms and methods that contributors bring to bear on their subject matter (to accompany the existing useful survey of relevant frameworks) would help to clarify the links between the contributors’ various interventions and the volume’s objective “to help this [comparative] approach find its place in the ever-changing constellation” of literary and cultural studies of Canada and the United States.
When it was first published in 1972, Devil in Deerskins achieved Canadian bestseller status. Even now, a casual Internet search reveals the extent to which fans of Anahareo and Grey Owl have welcomed the reissue of Anahareo’s autobiography dealing with the author’s early life and marriage to Grey Owl. Devil in Deerskinsis the inaugural text in the University of Manitoba’s First Voices, First Texts series of critical editions, whose General Editor is Warren Cariou, Canada Research Chair at the University of Manitoba. It is edited with an excellent afterword by Sophie McCall, an associate professor of English at Simon Fraser University. As McCall observes in her acknowledgements, the series aims to reintroduce “Indigenous texts now out of print” to a new generation of readers. The series also stands out for its self-awareness about scholarly methods; that is, “the hows and whys of practising ethically grounded, Indigenous-centred . . . research[,] editing, . . . publishing, distributing, and marketing.” There is a clear link between the series’ objectives and the way that the text is presented. For instance, the paratextual apparatus, which includes acknowledgements, forewords by Anahareo’s daughters, and nineteen photographs, suggests the extent to which the work involved in putting this volume together under McCall’s editorial supervision was collaborative. McCall’s informative afterword situates Devil in Deerskins within the larger context of its narrative strategies, reception history, and the series’ aims. Written in a conversational, self-aware, even lighthearted prose, Devil in Deerskins is at once lively, intimate, and memorable. While it will be welcomed by those interested in Anahareo and Grey Owl,Devil in Deerskins deserves also to be recognized on its own complex terms for the ways it allows readers to better appreciate the cultural value of Anahareo’s personal life and familial history of displacement and relocation, while also better understanding the literary historical value of her autobiography within the larger corpus of Indigenous writing in Canada.