A short way into Waubgeshig Rice’s Midnight Sweatlodge I said to myself “This little book is a gem!” but now that I’ve finished reading and rereading it I say loudly “This big, grand book is deceptive in it’s tininess and it is not a single gem but a glistening, sparkling, icy string of brutally sharp-edged diamonds. Outwardly, Midnight Sweatlodge has the appearance of a short novel, but it is actually a collection of short stories linked together by a frame narrative — the titular Sweatlodge. Because I’ve been rereading Bradbury lately I couldn’t help think of The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, but Midnight Sweatlodge‘s frame is much more tightly bound to the stories than anything Bradbury threw together, and Rice’s stories are actually dense and challenging prose poems. The poetry of Midnight Sweatlodge moves Rice’s novel/prose poem cycle into the company of The Decameron, the 1001 Nights and the Canterbury Tales. Lest I seem to be giving absurdly high praise . . . although I see Rice as serving at the same restaurant as Boccaccio, Scheherazade and Chaucer, those masters serve luxurious infinitely coursed banquets while Rice presents us with an exquisitely balanced and beautifully plated appetizer. I hope a banquet is in the future of his career. And that metaphor has certainly run its course . . .
Midnight Sweatlodge is four stories, three told within the blackness of the healing sweatlodge, the fourth told in the days and weeks after the ritual is abruptly ended. The frame which ties the stories together is the course of the ritual and the words of the elder attempting to guide the young people of his community toward healing.
The stories in order in absurd nutshells: “Dust” is childhood (“I bet we’d trade everything to be there again”), land rights, confrontation, death. “Solace” is adolescence, peer pressure, human potential, tragedy. “Bloodlines” is young adulthood, Urban Indian life, integration, extended family, expectations, racism. “Aasinaabe” is maturity, parenting, prophecy and apocalypse.
Rice’s descriptions of the Rez on an island in Georgian Bay, of the woods and the lake, of the dusty roads and the run-down, leaky houses is remarkably vivid. I have vague memories of being a child in the back of a car driving on Manitoulin Island and more recent memories of driving through First Nations land here in Alberta: Rice has nailed the light, the air, the very feel of Rez landscapes with all their beauties and tragic uglinesses and the phenomenal determination of the people.
I made copious notes throughout but the text is so tightly interwoven with metaphor and internal references that it is impossible to get into details without including spoilers, which I won’t do. But I will reveal that Midnight Sweatlodge with disarming economy and amazing power envelopes us in Treaties, warriorhood, parenting, childhood, love, abuse of spouses and substances, Rez life, urban life, work, play, ritual, rebirth, transformation, corruption, death and the potential end of the world — an attentive reading of the novel is an experience I imagine to be similar to an actual sweatlodge experience.
I invite everyone, particularly non-native readers, to join Waubgeshig Rice in the Midnight Sweatlodge for a transformation and an education.
Midnight Sweatlodge is published by Theytus Books and if you are literate you should buy it and read it.
Update November 29, 2014: By the way, Waubgeshig Rice’s first novel, Legacy, has been published.
Update March 8, 2015: It was a pleasure yesterday to receive an email announcing the completion of featuring the very smooth voice stylings of Rick Harp. After a very successful Kickstarter campaign, this important new version of Waub’s first book will reach a new audience, and spread the magnificent storytelling even further.