(no spoilers ahead!)
Lightfinder by artist Aaron Paquette is a stunning debut novel, an enthralling first instalment of what promises to be an exciting series of novels for young adults (and all sorts of other readers). Comparisons will inevitably be made (I’ll do it myself in a moment), but unlike authors of some of the popular novel series for young adults of the recent and not-so-recent past, Paquette has firmly rooted the adventure in our real world: no Ministry of Magic, no post-Apocalyptic Panem, and although there are magical journeys, they are not to some aborted Medievalist fantasy called Narnia or anything else imaginary. Lightfinder is an adventure in the landscape and geography – and political economy – of Canada – specifically Alberta – today. And it is an adventure through the difficult life of Paquette’s young Cree heroine, Aisling, from the challenge of rising above the generational abuse suffered by her ancestors to simply finish school, through the tragedy of parental alcoholism and death, to the realization that she, and her runaway brother Eric are the keys to the future of Planet Earth.
Aisling, with the help of her Auntie Martha and Kokum Georgia begins on a quest to rescue Eric from the evil influence of the mysterious boy Cor. Quickly it becomes clear that the real quest is nothing less than to save the Earth from destruction by the evil “Raven” (long ago “Raven” wiped life off the faces of both Mars and the Moon). Along the way, Aisling is helped (and hindered) in her quest by a number of humans and individuals from the dream world – “real” world and dream world mingle. There’s the half-Australian Aborigine, Matari; the shy school-friend Jake; the Dreaming figures of Laughing Toad, Standing Coyote, and Walking Man.
And, the comparisons will inevitably come: “The Lightfinder Saga is an Indigenous Harry Potter!” “Lightfinder is a Native Narnia!” “Dune in the Boreal Forest!” “A First Nations Hunger Games!”
I admit, while reading Lightfinder I briefly made all these comparisons as well as the analogy Paquette explicitly makes to Star Wars:
“Do or do not,” her Kokum chimed in with a mischievous smile. “There is no try.” p. 64
I argue, however, that, while such analogies may easily be drawn, and the comparisons may bring fruitful understandings, Lightfinder is not in any significant way derivative of the blockbuster icons which have preceded it.
The Harry Potter series with which J. K. Rowling addicted a generation or more of young people to reading is perhaps the most obvious parallel, obvious not least because the boy wizard and Hogwarts have so penetrated the popular consciousness. But, Rowling’s world is removed from ours, an imaginative but fundamentally unreal pastiche of pretend European magical themes, practices and ideas grafted onto an alternative universe in which all the magic is hidden by the rather unbelievable conspiracy called the Ministry of Magic. Its all good fun, but no matter how well we suspend our disbelief, Privet Drive -never mind Hogwarts – is not a part of our world.
Paquette’s world, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in North American realities, the reality of Indigenous kids forced by history into adulthood before their teen years have begun, the reality of environmental devastation by faceless, unnamed forces, and the reality of vibrant and freshly alive Native spirituality and tradition. Whether or not we believe in the magic of Lightfinder, it is an organic magic of our real world, developed over generations, not the artificial playthings constructed by Rowling for Hogwarts to teach its young charges. Aisling is a girl just like any number you will see each day on Edmonton’s LRT, at school in Maskwacîs, or visiting with her Kokum in Standoff, or Sucker Creek, or Cold Lake or an apartment in Saskatoon. She has no lightening bolt scar. She’s not an only-child orphan of mysterious parents. What is remarkable about her is what is remarkable about any teenage girl: she intends to change her world.
Like C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books, Lightfinder has parallel worlds and talking animals. But, unlike those of Lewis, Paquette’s animals talk because they are part of a real, vast, coherent mythological tradition, not because they are just pulled out of various religious and historic periods or even thin air, as Lewis’ are pulled.
And the world of Lightfinder is harsh and gritty. Wounding and death can and do come to the characters in graphic descriptions never seen by Harry and his friends or the Pevensie kids. Lightfinder owes more to The Orenda than to Narnia. It is this gritty realism that is pretty much Lightfinder‘s only similarity to The Hunger Games.
An analogy could be made between the Messianic trappings of Paul Atriedes in Dune and the two protagonists of Lightfinder. In both books the expected child(ren) arrive too early, upsetting the grand plan somewhat. But Messiahs in world literature are legion, and the environmental concerns of Lightfinder I’m sure owe everything to Paquette’s experience, and nothing to the dry-land ecology of Dune.
Overshadowing all, of course, is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, another quest by an unlikely hero to save the world from life-sucking evil. The Lord of the Rings, for anyone who has read the nearly-two-dozen posthumous volumes of Tolkien’s writings (I have) will know, is rooted as deep as the lowest depths of the Mines of Moria in the pre-Christian mythology and languages – philology we might say – of Northern Europe (principally Germanic and Finnish). In the author’s bio at the back of the book, and also at the book’s launch in Edmonton, Paquette remembers his mother’s imitation of Gollum as she read The Lord of the Rings to him as a child. I think, here, in The Lord of the Rings, there may be the only really significant influence from Fantasy literature by European Colonial authors. But, again, Paquette’s tale takes place today in readily identifiable places, not in the distant shadowed past of Middle Earth. “Raven” resembles more the god of Pullman’s His Dark Materials than he does Sauron. There is no “Fellowship” of disparate races in Lightfinder. Rather, there is family and (sometimes false) friends.
No. Lightfinder is not a Metis Lord of the Rings.
In the end, although we inevitably note reminders of books we’ve read before, Lightfinder is a brilliantly fresh, enthralling first novel, a novel that I expect will inspire a new generation of young readers both within and far beyond Canada’s First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities. In fact, I’d venture to say Lightfinder will likely be not only a best seller, but a blockbuster that brings to an international generation an indigenous reality and, just maybe, a change to the world.
It would probably make a good movie, too!
Lightfinder by Aaron Paquette is published by Kegedonce Press.
Two weeks after its release, a second printing was needed.