“Legacy” by Waubgeshig Rice: Some Thoughts

Waubgeshig Rice’s Legacy is a powerful debut novel, a most worthy follow up to his first book, the four story collection Midnight Sweatlodge, which I’ve previously discussedLegacy, although showing a few first novel weaknesses, cements Waubgeshig Rice’s position as a Canadian author to watch, and, more importantly, as a storyteller to be paid attention.

As I mentioned, Legacy has a few first novel problems — perhaps a few every novel problems.  The vocabulary a few times feels like Rice is straining for a 25 cent word, for example.  But the problems are few and forgivable.  Rice has mad a fine start on transitioning from the short story to the novel.  That having been said, Legacy has much in common with Midnight Sweatlodge beyond the obvious Anishinaabe setting.

The story of the Gibson family in Legacy is in many ways a series of separate but deeply interlaced and interdependent short stories.  Where Midnight Sweatlodge is a set of thematically linked short stories, Legacy is the interlaced story of a single Anishinaabe family dealing with the implications of Legacy, all the legacies of human existence, from the legacies our younger selves leave our future selves, to the sins and violations of the father and the mother visited upon the sons and daughters to the seventh generation.  While Legacy is specifically about Anishinaabe life and death in the modern world, in the City and on the Reserve, Rice isn’t swinging a clumsy ethnic sledgehammer.

Legacy is a story obviously close to Rice, a young, social media savvy writer/journalist who has succeeded in Ottawa, apparently without compromise, while keeping at least one foot firmly back home on the shore of Georgian Bay.  But Legacy is not a novel “for” Anishinaabe or Indigenous People any more than Gordon Pinsent’s classic “The Rowdyman” is a film for Newfoundlanders or H. G. Wells’ Ann Veronica is a novel “for” Edwardian British shop girls.  That I  feel the need to point it out perhaps says something unfortunate about lingering “mainstream” Canadian views of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit art and literature.

I see no point in summarizing Rice’s story.  The best summary is always to say “Read it!”  Instead, a metaphor.  Legacy is, to put it simply, an illustration of how five siblings play the hands they’ve been dealt in life, and the hands they themselves deal by living.   Truly, the hands they begin with are all very similar, but the game of life always has a multitude of hidden players, and outcomes are always unpredictable.  Near the end, on page 189, someone says to someone (no spoilers here):

You had a chance to redefine that legacy.

That sentence is, I think, key to understanding Rice’s novel.  We are rarely given the chance in life to redefine a legacy. If the chance comes, we must seize it.  Maybe I have included a spoiler.

A particular stylistic detail I want to point out caused me very early in my reading to tweet that Legacy had lots of “What’s he doing? — Ah! I see!” moments.  What I was thinking of is a contrast between Rice’s urban scenes and the scenes back in Birchbark, the Gibson’s home community on the shores of Georgian Bay.  Legacy opens with Eva, one of the siblings, walking down a Toronto street in late winter.  The detail of description is claustrophobic.  The sedans and minivans pushing the brown and grey snow against the burbs are boxy and brown and yellow and the passing men have mullets and moustaches and wear tight suits in grey and blue.  And all that is packed into part of one short paragraph!  That’s what made me ask “what’s he doing?”

But then Eva remembers childhood, flashing back to the Lake Huron beach with her mother, in .  And it was like I could breathe again.  Rice’s descriptions are every bit as vivid in Birchbark, but all is calm and comfortable.  This descriptive contrast is quite cinematographic, perhaps a legacy of Rice’s work as a videographer.  Whatever the source, the technique works brilliantly and a little frighteningly subliminally.  The city scenes, even the most mundane, are anxiety producing, while Birchbark, even in the midst of a drunken teenage brawl, is strangely comfortable.  Rice has brilliantly evoked the Rez to City, the rural to urban,, the village to town harsh journey that has confronted so many generations and made it seamlessly contemporary.

When I briefly discussed Midnight Sweatlodge, I suggested that Waubgeshig Rice was a writer to watch.  I’ll say now that he is a storyteller I will continue to follow with much interest and, I fully expect, with tremendous enjoyment and to my great intellectual benefit.  It is a great pleasure to watch the development of a young writer of such fine achievement and even greater promise.

Legacy by Waubgeshig Rice is published by Theytus Books.  Seek it out.

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