Versions of History

Reviewed by Duffy Roberts

Motorcyles & Sweetgrass is set in the First Nations community of Otter Lake, an Anishnawbe community on the cusp of completion of a land purchase, one negotiated with municipal, provincial, and governmental authorities. The centre of the story is Chief Maggie Second’s family—Virgil, her son, and Wayne, her brother—and how, on the death of her grandmother Lillian and a couple of years after a boating accident kills her husband, Nanabush the trickster rides into town on a vintage Indian motorcycle—Nanabush is male, and white, and laughs a lot, except when at war with the raccoons.

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass’ prologue begins with an Anishnawbe woman and an Ojibway man swimming in a lake together, with fish. And while it may be “hard [for the fish] to lodge a complaint [against the human intrusion] given that balance of power,” the woman must leave because a Residential School (“the Angry Place”) wants to teach her about the “Battle of Hastings, dangling participles, and how to draw a pie chart,” and, of course, “Jesus” (“what kind of a name is that?”). Implied by Taylor’s prologue is that Christians are still so pissed off and disappointed by their removal from the garden of Eden that they project this mood-cum-failure onto the man and the woman in this story, removing them from their garden of Eden. It’s not just that misery loves company, it’s that in order to balance the scale of moods one must make another miserable. Residential School is where miserable happens: you couldn’t speak your language of birth, Anishnawbe, “the forbidden language”; you couldn’t laugh; you had to memorize Shakespeare on threat of being locked into a box. The Residential School ultimately fails at Project Misery, at least for these characters, and laughter, play, and trickery overcome.

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass avoids misery, which is not to say that the novel doesn’t deal directly and viscerally with the “gifts” of colonialism—alcoholism, marginalization, community decisions handcuffed by the Indian Act’s je ne sais quoi. The novel also argues that colonization is viral, “work[s] its way into the DNA, the beliefs and philosophies and the very ways of life of the people being colonized [so much so that they’re] indistinguishable from White people.” But rather than have the oppressive weight of Residential Schools and the above history influence the tone and messages of this story’s characters, they all muse on a changing First Nations’ identity and Anishnawabe community, but not by arguing that that change is inherently shitty. Yes, the novel wants to bring forward some of the qualities in Maggie’s mother’s time, “a time when people still believed in mystical and magical things,” but I think the Otter Lake community’s voice, as articulated by Taylor, is magical: Nanabush is John Tanner, and John Richardson, and John Clayton, and John Matus, and John Smith, and threatens the raccoons he’s at war with—“I invented roadkill, remember that”; women do do anything better than men “short of writing [their] names in the snow”; Nanabush tells Maggie’s son Virgil, after Virgil complains about Nanabush’s courship of Maggie, tikwamshin (“bite me”); in this story, smiling is a dangerous weapon; Maggie’s recluse brother Wayne comments on Maggie’s son, Virgil—“you know, the more time I spend with you, the more I really appreciate having never really spent much time with you”; and the bathroom, washing machine, and Shake ‘n Bake are the three greatest inventions of White people.

If Motorcycles & Sweetgrass concludes (and it doesn’t, at least singularly, and that’s really cool), it might conclude with “never underestimate the need for some sheer silliness.” It also claims that the exotic can exist inside one’s own culture, because when Nanabush the trickster’s existence is a possibility, that even maybe he’s dating your mother or sister, “immediately the world bec[omes] a much more interesting place.” This novel is so interesting, readable, and important, it’ll hit one of my literature courses real soon.
Dahanu Road, a story that tells of the Irani family’s journey from Iranian poverty and mistreatment to Indian chickoo fruit plantation ownership and wealth, begins with a prologue as well, but one that suggests that grief and loss are more powerful than fear, and that both fear and the threat of loss keep class systems and power intact. Love might make these rigid systems permeable, even bearable, but the novel’s ending complicates love’s potential energy.
Switching between the family narratives of the 1940s and 2000s, I think Dahanu Road to be beautifully written—“Mahtre [dips] his thin lips in ink and writ[es] his grandmother’s story in the finest calligraphy”—and to make interesting claims for the “asphyxiat[ing]” power of history over the imagination. I think the novel also balances the grief with a necessary humour and grace: “poverty’s greatest gift to the rich . . . is no bra”; it offers place-specific metaphors like tools “forked like a cobra’s tongue”; the Iranis’ claim to uniqueness is that they are “pioneers [because] in an age where everything seems to be moving forward [they] simply refuse to evolve”; the novel offers a claim for reading being about being “perceptive enough to notice shadows on the wall”; hot weather people eat watermelons and place the overturned shells on their heads to cool down; and there is a place where dogs disappear because the circus is in town—lions and tigers, after all, “ha[ve] to be fed.”

I think the novel’s conclusions sadden, with the inevitability of limited choices offered by a world largely constructed and conditioned by poverty, tribalism, and a haunting regret for the histories we have created. And I locate Dahanu Road alongside Chimamanda Adichie’s “Ted Talk” about the dangers of a single story to make a claim for its importance in the canon of Canadian literature, and because by understanding elsewhere, we can learn wonderful things about elsewhere and here.

This review “Versions of History” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 164-165.

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