Striking Sparks in the Darkness

Reviewed by Conrad Scott

If there is a truth about the current outpouring of Indigenous literature and other creative ventures, it is that Richard Van Camp fosters upcoming authors and artists. He is their enthusiastic champion. His support says to his cousins, to all his relations, that there has never been a better time for Indigenous voices to ponder an unquestionably heavy past and work toward renewal together. As Van Camp says of his foray into writing, “I had fired an arrow of flaming light into the world and I had no idea who it would find. I was terrified.” The present moment in Indigenous literature is one of wrestling with deep communal wounds, illuminating the past, and moving beyond the terror to lead the way forward.

Fittingly, the twentieth anniversary special edition of Van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed features the addition of two short stories, “Where Are You Tonight?” and “How I Saved Christmas.” They bring the novel into greater focus. The Lesser Blessed, set in fictional Fort Simmer (“an amalgamation of Fort Smith, Hay River, and Behchoko, NWT”), is the Bildungsroman of Larry Sole, who faces his traumatic past. Though his memories are hazy at first, Larry is the scarred poster child for the intergenerational abuse and violence of residential school. But he is also a healing force, for one of the powerful truths about The Lesser Blessed is that not only Larry’s traumas are told: each character is in need of healing. As Van Camp suggests in his introduction, love is the potent force here. The healing role of Larry’s angelic persona is contextualized further in “Where Are You Tonight?” when he says he “has wings but only he can see them,” and then realizes that “[m]aybe Juliet can see them” as well, since he is “the Ambassador of Love.” Larry carries love within him like a bright centre. He has become angelic out of the ashes of his “Destroying Angel” self, when his shadow “was the only one with fire in its eyes” and he literally sought to burn away past harms and the memory of his father’s brutal trespasses. If he is angelic in the present of the story, it is despite the fact that his body has been burned and despite the drastic choices he made to escape his past. His wings lift him until he has fulfilled his role in bringing heartbroken Juliet love: after this, “all the wings [are] clipped.” “How I Saved Christmas” demonstrates that Larry survives his terrible past to become a man who can still bring light to others: he no longer needs to feel otherworldly and outside of himself, but can now be a man in his community.

Van Camp’s blurb on the jacket of Bearskin Diary states that Carol Daniels is “[o]ne of the most important voices in Canadian literature today”: this praise highlights her important treatment of the Sixties Scoop and of sustained prejudice and violence against Indigenous women in the Prairies and the rest of the country. After the protagonist Sandy is hired at a news station, one of her few sympathetic colleagues tells her, “‘[d]on’t let the bastards get you down.’” Sandy’s overcoming systemic prejudice to reclaim her cultural roots is an ode not only to victims, but also to those who have fought to a renewed sense of self. She is a survivor because of her transition to become Maskwayanakohp-Iskwiw (Bearskin Robe Woman)—a name change evident in the present-day scenarios that bookend the novel. The titular Diary aspect of the novel does not disappoint in its contemplation of memory. The main text is not formally a journal, and though Sandy’s diary is indeed featured as an artifact of the past, as she explains, “I don’t need it to look anything up.” Rather, this is a narrative of memory-gathering, in which an individual always recalls how she was able to overcome the pressures of a system that divided her from her culture and then attempted to prevent her return. In the epilogue, she explains that “[t]he dark times . . . travelled through have been replaced by light and admiration.” But the memories are still there, and still important to her return and identity.

While memory, in the form of secrets, also permeates Jennifer Manuel’s The Heaviness of Things That Float, her protagonist’s complicated perspective is that of an observer of an Indigenous community born outside of its culture. Bernadette Perkal is a nurse in the fictional Tawakin, which is formed from the author’s experiences “on the lands of the Ktunaxa, Tahltan and Nuu-chah-nulth peoples,” and considers herself a community member even though she is not Indigenous—a position further troubled by her knowledge of others. As Bernadette says to the incoming nurse about community medical records, “‘people have treated me differently now and then because I know too much.’” Bernadette is further unsettled by a comparison of these records to the other “pieces of paper” with which the colonial government attempts to define Indigenous people. Her sense of belonging is further thrust into uncertainty when Chase, the man she considers a son, goes missing. When his biological father, Frank, whom Bernadette loves, asks her whether Chase might consider suicide, she says that “‘[h]e’s got a light inside him.’” She persists in that belief even when Frank asks whether this is “‘[e]nough to keep out the darkness.’” Ultimately, though, tragedy is at the heart of this story. Bernadette’s crux of identity and uncovered memories is finally somewhat healed. Frank’s gift to her honours that she is “like Son of Deer because [she] had brought fire and light and heat to his life.” This precedes a further illumination, which occurs when she leaves the community after forty years and acknowledges a “fleeting moment” of insight into both culture and community: despite her losses and difference, she is afforded a moment of clarity and belonging to hold as close as the carved memory chest Frank gave her.

Which dark pasts must be faced in the uncovering of memory? Where will their release take Indigenous voices? Such questions permeate these works, which together help illuminate a vibrant process of healing
Indigenous communities as they move toward a renewal of culture. The title of my review honours the authors for bringing their light to difficult topics. Adapted from seventeenth-century religious poet Henry Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans, the image holds a creative, redemptive edge even for this non-religious person.

This review “Striking Sparks in the Darkness” originally appeared in Concepts of Vancouver: Poetics, Art, Media Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 235 (Winter 2017): 138-140.

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