Category Archives: Book Review

BOOK REVIEW: “Rose’s Run,” by Dawn Dumont


I’ve been reading a lot of material about Canadian First Nations people over the past few months–including the two books my reviews of which have comprised the past two posts in this blog. All of this material has consisted of non-fiction. I wanted to try some First Nations fiction for a change. First Nations fiction is something I haven’t yet explored and, given that I’d heard several reports of excellent work in this area having been produced in recent years, it seemed about time.

So when I was down at the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library a couple of weeks ago, I hit the “New Fiction” section, looking for something, anything really, since I then didn’t have any authors’ names to go by, that could serve as my starting point for exploring this new terrain. Dawn Dumont’s 2014 novel, “Rose’s Run,” published by Saskatoon’s Thistledown Press and the winner of the 2014 City of Regina Book Award for Fiction, flew off the shelf into my eager hands. I say ‘flew’ off because there is a prominent silhouette of an in-flight raven against a bright red background on the cover that made the book readily identifiable to me as First Nations literature. (I commend whoever thought up, and executed, this cover image. It not only fits the story but also works well in attracting newcomers like me interested in a good First Nations read, probably as well as those more experienced with this genre.)

After reading “Rose’s Run” and, immediately after, her earlier book of biographical essays, “Nobody Cries at Bingo”–and watching an episode of the APTN show “Fish out of Water” that she co-hosts–DAWN DUMONT is a name I won’t be forgetting any time soon. The caliber of Dumont’s writing combined with her TV hosting duties and involvement with theatre (she’s written some plays I haven’t yet read), and her sense of humour, bring to mind another Canadian author/broadcaster who is much better known, at least in my circles: Ann-Marie MacDonald. I suspect that, if Dumont were White, although she’s still only in her mid- to late-30s, she’d already be at least as well-known across Canada as MacDonald–and maybe she eventually will be.

“Rose’s Run” combines a very contemporary story of female resistance against male repression and female redemption, set on a rural Saskatchewan reservation, with supernatural elements taken from plains Cree mythology. The first part of the story takes place mainly in the ‘normal’ world; but once the central character, Rose, a mother of three now abandoned by her husband, takes up long-distance running to reclaim her self-respect and to serve as a role model to her kids, strange, otherworldly, things start to happen. After she trips and bumps her head on one of her training runs, the otherworldly elements amp up, until the final chapter of the book, when Rose participates in the big marathon race that has been her goal since taking up running and things get back, at least superficially, to ‘normal’.

The combination of the the ‘normal’ and the supernatural works extremely well in this book, especially through Dumont linking supernatural elements to long-distance running. In reading this book, I was reminded of the “magic realism” of certain South American writers, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but with the supernatural elements taken from Cree culture, set in a contemporary Canadian context.

Dawn Dumont’s “Rose’s Run” provided me with an excellent introduction to Canadian First Nations fiction and I’m looking forward to reading many more such books, by her and by other Canadian First Nations authors. Dumont has set the bar high with “Rose’s Run,” so I hope I won’t be disappointed when reading other books of this genre.

As a final point here, after reading both of Dumont’s books set in in Saskatchewan (the novel and her biographical essays) and published by a Saskatoon publisher, as well as reading some interesting non-fiction books published by the University of Regina press in the past few months (including not only the two I’ve reviewed in this blog), I’ve become much more interested in Saskatchewan as a possible place to spend some time in the future. Many interesting things seem to be going on culturally now in Saskatchewan, related especially to the strong First Nations presence in that province. (My only previous personal experience of Saskatchewan was taking the Greyhound through the province heading back to Vancouver when I was a student at McGill, and stopping over for a couple of hours at the bus depot in Saskatoon. Seems there’s a lot more to the province than wheatfields and that depressing bus depot.)

BOOK REVIEW: “The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir”, by Joseph Auguste Merasty with David Carpenter

The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir

I awoke the morning after finishing reading this book the evening before, just before I went to sleep, with a very poignant, and powerful, scene being acted out on the movie screen of my waking mind. I saw a drunk and disheveled old Native guy, someone I hadn’t previously met, sitting alone on a bench in a city park. Normally, if I’d come across a guy like that, I would have just let him be, and gone on my way. But that’s not what happened this time.

I observed him for a while, realizing, oddly (we hadn’t previously met), that this was a guy who had many interesting stories to tell, and who was a good story-teller, and I wanted to hear those stories. I also knew that, due to the drink, and his age, and a possible desire to preserve his dignity, I shouldn’t expect that his stories would be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But I wanted to hear his stories anyway, and to share a park bench with him and savour his warmth and gentle humour, so I went over to join him. I sat down, and we started to talk. Then I got up … up out of bed, that is, only because it was a workday and I had to get to work.

Critically-minded readers who read “The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir” looking for just further evidence of the indignities and abuse suffered by residential school students are likely to find this book disappointing–at least initially. Augie Merasty, a survivor of nine years at the St. Therese Residential School in Sturgeon Landing, whose handwritten stories of his experiences at the school written over several years comprise the basis of this book, is not, as I think any reasonable person would acknowledge, an entirely reliable narrator.

Age, drink, and the fact that, at least when he began his project of recording stories from his days at St. Therese, he was likely to have been aware that he stood to gain financially by presenting a dark picture, all lend suspicion to his account. (Augie began to record his stories in the late 1990s as evidence to be used by lawyers in the first stage of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that led to a 1.9 billion federal government settlement package, implemented in 2007, for survivors of the residential schools.)

A further, related, problem, is that, although Augie is still alive, he apparently is now too sick (from cancer) to do television interviews and other kinds of personal appearances that could lend credibility to his case. We’re unable to watch Augie, and to listen to his actual voice, as he relates his stories–unlike when we watched, and listened to, selected survivors of the residential schools presenting their videotaped testimonies as part of the wrap-up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on June 2, and knew, with certainly, that they were telling the truth and, furthermore, knew, with certainty, what a devastating experience this had been for them.

In addition to these problems related to Augie himself, there are problems related to how this book was put together. A professional writer, David Carpenter, formerly a teacher in the English Department at the University of Saskatchewan, considerably helped Augie in bringing to fruition his dream of publishing his memoir as a book. As Carpenter reveals in the relatively lengthly introduction to this slim volume (about a third of which consists of the Introduction), he had to do a great deal of editing to corral the various prose passages and letters that Augie provided, over a period of several years, into a coherent, publishable, book. A question arises, as it inevitably does with this kind of collaboration, regarding who actually contributed what to the finished work.

Often, in the main section of the book that is supposed to be Augie’s memoir, the language is jarring, not at all in keeping with how a Native guy who did learn how to read and write at St. Therese’s but who spent most of his working life as a fisherman and trapper would be expected to communicate. For example, would Augie really have referred to himself and his pals at school as “me and my fellow reprobates?” Or would he really have said of a particularly sadistic nun at St. Therese, “I cannot say enough to vilify her name”? Problems like this with the language used to relate Augie’s experiences dilute the credibility of the experiences themselves.
But, of course, if Carpenter hadn’t done a great deal of work on Augie’s ‘manuscript’ to make it publishable, including sometimes interjecting his own vocabulary, and sensibilities, this book would never have been published.

Despite these ‘weaknesses’, assuming that readers come to this book with the usual preconceptions and expectations–that its publishers, unfortunately, haven’t made an effort to discourage–I believe this book is worth reading. It’s the images that occur after finishing the book, when one’s guard is down, and the power that these images may have in helping achieve reconciliation between Native and non-Native Canadians, that may be this book’s greatest strength. Images like that of an old, drunk, Native guy sitting on a park bench, grinning warmly as you draw near …

BOOK REVIEW: “Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People” by Michel Hogue

I came to this book with an academic background not in history but, rather, in issues associated with philosophical change in Canadian postsecondary education. One of my interests is implications for humanities research, including historical research, of postmodernism. I’ve also had a longstanding interest in Canada’s First Nations people, but mainly in the present context. (I worked for a few years for CESO on a Native youth employment program that gave me the opportunity to visit several reserves in northern Quebec and BC. The experience left a very strong impression.)

Frankly, I’m generally wary of the work of academic historians. So much of such work buys into, if not explicitly then implicitly, the binary logic that has held sway in Western universities since their inception. This system of logic no longer generally prevails in modern democracies like Canada so, at best, such work is merely outdated. Often, such work is not only outdated but also conceivably could do harm. (I could say more about how such harm may occur, but this isn’t the place for another one of my screeds about academic humanities research.)

Although Michel Hogue is a professor in the History Department at Carleton University and “Metis and the Medicine Line” is published, in Canada, by the University of Regina Press (it originally was published in the US by the University of North Carolina Press), I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in Canadian Metis history and culture and/or the history of the Canada-US border–even to those skeptical of academe. I also would recommend it to any culturally responsible Canadian whose knowledge of plains history is, like mine was before I read this book, basically confined to compulsory high-school history classes and watching “Dancing With Wolves,” who should know more–even if they don’t yet know it. (I saw “Dancing With Wolves” a second time, on APTN, after reading this book, and the movie was more interesting the second time around.) I also would recommend it to academic historians, regardless of their areas of specialization, as a model of how academic historical work can remain relevant, and be beneficial, in the current era.

Because of its rich detail, “Metis and the Medicine Line” sometimes can be tough reading, even for academically trained readers. But getting through the book’s densely packed pages is worth the effort. (To be fair, there are several interesting historical photographs interspersed throughout the book.) These details are included not merely to illustrate particular points but also themselves effectively comprise two central points of the book.

The first is that Metis history is much more rich and complex than has traditionally been portrayed. As Hogue recounts, when the North American plains were first being colonized, the Metis people crossed many of the conceptual ‘borders’ that the White colonists, who themselves thought in binary terms, tried to impose on them: these include ‘borders’ relating to race, culture and nationality. The second is that the development of the physical border between Canada and the United States in western North America was a more complex, and more conflict-ridden, process than is usually understood, owing in large measure to the cross-border travel in pursuit of buffalo, and cross-border shenanigans, of migratory plains people, most notably the Metis. (The meaning of “the medicine line” in the title of the book is related to some of these shenanigans. If you want to know more, you’ll have to read the book.)

A stylistic device that Hogue employs throughout this book that helps to organize, and to bring resonance to, details he provides about Metis life and culture and Canada-US border creation issues is to follow a single Metis family, the family of the peripatetic trader Antoine Ouellette and his wife Angelique Bottineau, through the period covered in the book. It’s a very clever, very elegant, device that draws readers back in when the details may be starting to wear them down. It worked that way for me, anyway.

Because I’m not a historian specializing in Metis culture and/or Canada-US border development, I don’t know if and, if so, to what extent, Michel Hogue’s book, and his related academic work, is precedent setting. I’m curious to know. I would suggest that with “Metis and the Medicine Line”, Hogue not only has written an important book about a people that crossed racial, cultural and national borders, but also has done some significant border-crossing himself, bringing a fresh, non-traditional, non-binary, perspective to this subject. He is to be commended–as are his publishers.

A relatively minor shortcoming of this book, in my view, is that I wish that Hogue had said a little more about himself in his book, and what led him to write it. The combination of his first and last names suggests his family backgound is culturally mixed, including some French or French-Canadian. In a book like this, I think he owes it to his readers to let them know at least if he is, or isn’t, Metis. . . . Actual Metis, that is, and not just any old border-crossing, contemporary, Canadian who identifies with these border-crossing people.

Just the Facts Please, Maddam: Thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam

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After reading Margaret Atwood’s new book, MaddAddam, I checked out the Flipboard magazine that she put together consisting of diverse non-fiction material gleaned from the Web that supports various elements of the book.  For example, there is a fascinating article in the Flipboard magazine about the healing properties of the purring of cats, that supports the purring of the bioengineered Crakers of the book (like humans in many ways, but not in others) when someone, or something, is hurt or otherwise ailing.  There’s also a National Geographic piece about extreme weather, presumably caused by global warming.  Another of the many articles that I found especially interesting was the one about bees–which is a subject about which, judging not only from the book but also from Atwood’s comments on Twitter, Atwood is strongly interested and very knowledgeable.  Frankly, apart from a few sections in the book that I found particularly entertaining (the Craker’s incessant questioning, like the questioning of young kids, during ‘story-time’, and the deification of ‘Fuck’), or especially well-written (the book’s final few pages immediately come to mind), I preferred the Flipboard magazine to the book.

Were it not for Atwood’s intriguing comments about MaddAddam on Twitter as she progressed through the final stages of preparing this book for publication, and the fact that I happened to be browsing in the New Books section of the Central Branch of the Vancouver Public Library, looking for something to read on a soggy Vancouver weekend, when mint, just-processed, copies of MaddAddam were placed on a shelf right in front of my nose, I probably would not have read this book.  Not now, so soon after publication, and probably not ever.  I tried reading Oryx and Crake, the first book in the trilogy of which MaddAddam is the concluding book, several years ago, and, after several stops and starts, never make it past the half-way point. (Not finishing a book I’ve started reading is extremely unusual for me.  And I read a lot of books. Fiction and non-fiction.)  Over the years, I’ve read most of Atwood’s adult novels, and finished reading all the others I started. Some I even read a couple of times.  (My favourite of all time, in my view well-worth multiple reads, is Cat’s Eye.)  But Atwood’s post-apocalyptic, dystopic, science fiction doesn’t propel me forward.

I know that dystopian fiction has been a very popular genre in the past few years, in books and movies. World War Z was Brad Pitt’s top-grossing movie ever–and he’s been in a lot of hit movies.  Both the book and movie versions of The Hunger Games have been huge commercial successes.  (I personally haven’t seen or read either.) But I don’t think that Atwood needed to go down that path to sell books, or to get her points across about protecting our planet from environmental disaster.

Even more disturbing to me than the wretched world that Atwood has created for the trilogy is why, in the trilogy, the human race was virtually wiped out.  It wasn’t through environmental disaster, as such, but rather was because one idealistic mad scientist, Crake (a.k.a. Glenn), believed that the planet could be preserved only if the vast majority of human beings were killed.  In short, by using some special biochemical invention, he murdered most of his fellow human beings.  Evidently, a great deal of environmental degradation already had occurred before he acted as he did.  (For example, it is mentioned in MaddAddam that the city of New York has been destroyed by floods.)  But, exactly at what point, if ever, could such an act be justified?

Atwood never makes it clear in MaddAddam whether Crake was ultimately a saviour or a demented, demonic, force.  After reading MaddAddam, I went back to Oryx and Crake to see if this issue was clarified in that book.  In the first chapter, at least, it’s not.  And that was as far as I could make it through the book, even this time.  It seems that Atwood intentionally left it up to her readers to figure this out, and I find that disturbing. (Please, please, correct me if I’ve missed some vital information in this regard.) I find it disturbing morally, and also in terms of the possible real-world consequences.  Supposing some nut-bar who, after reading one of these books, perhaps in an English lit class, decided to follow Crake’s example and take things into his or her own hands. Maybe for readers with more of a taste for speculative fiction than have I, and who have a greater familiarity with the genre, the central moral ambiguity of MaddAddam, with such a severity of possible consequence, wouldn’t be a problem.  But for me, it is a serious problem.

Personally, I’m far more interested in finding out what we might do to avert a post-apocalyptic, dystopic, future such as Atwood describes in MaddAddam (and in the preceding books in the trilogy), than in having such a future spelled out for me.  But I am seriously impressed by the Flipboard magazine that supplements MaddAddam.  (Besides the interesting material in the magazine, I have to thank Atwood for introducing me to this great app, that I’ve now downloaded onto my iPad.)  I also greatly appreciate the work that Atwood has been doing recently through Twitter to educate her hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, including myself, about the environment.