The Briefest of Thoughts on Canada Reads 2016 after the first day

Some exceptionally paraphrastic and subjective reactions to the Canada Reads 2016 shortlisted books after the first day of debate (maybe I’ll share more expansive thoughts in days to come):

Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter – I haven’t finished reading it yet, but my initial impression is very positive in a sort of David-Adams-Richards-depressive way.

Birdie by Tracey Lindberg – This was the first of the five titles I read and I found myself underwhelmed. I found it to be fairly unenthralling, not terribly engaging, and disappointing considering the positive things I’d heard.

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz – The second book I read and I was enthralled. I totally felt it couldn’t be beaten, until

The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami – This is an engaging, enthralling, poetic, beautiful, bitter-sweet, realistic, lovely novel.  The Hero’s Walk is a novel of Classic quality that will be read for generations, whatever happens on Canada Reads.

The Illegal by Laurence Hill – For most of the time I was reading The Illegal I felt like I was reading a somewhat sophisticated version of one of Heinlein’s “Juvenile” science fiction novels.   I felt like Laurence Hill was wielding a sledge hammer of didactic message and a clumsy tissue of coincidence. Seriously: everyone is startlingly in the right place at the right time. Are there only ten people in this imaginary land?

In the end, leaving Minister Without Portfolio out of the discussion as it has been left out of the discussion, The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami is the finest novel on the Canada Reads 2016 short list, whatever its relation to the theme of “Starting Over” is seen to be.


Prophetic Poetry from Canada’s Oil Patch: Naden Parkin’s “A Relationship With Truth”

When the Muses appeared to Hesiod on Mount Helicon, they put in his hand a branch of olive-wood and breathed into him a divine voice that he might celebrate the things that shall be and that were aforetime.  That a humble Boeotian farmer should make such claims for himself may surprise and shock those who regard the Greeks as the first rationalists and their poetry as a dawn breaking through the long Babylonian night.  But Hesiod was not alone even among the Greeks in asserting the poet’s dominion over so vast and so formidable a field.  Claims like his can be found in many ages and many places, and though not all poets were in the beginning prophets, there is abundant evidence for an ancient and intimate connexion between poetry and prophecy.
–Sir Maurice Bowra, The Prophetic Element, the 1959 Presidential Address to The English Association, p. 3.

Naden Parkin is a voice, crying in the wilderness of Canada’s Oil Patch, a Jeremiah forced by circumstances to live off the altars of the petrochemical Baal.  Naden Parkin is that perhaps most unexpected of creatures, an oil field mud-man prophetic poet.

Yesterday I was in the Chapters store in Sherwood Park – Sure White Park, as we like to call it, due to the largely pale demographics of this Edmonton bedroom community – browsing through the tiny “Arts and Letters” section, when I noticed a slim paperback with no lettering on the spine.  A Relationship With Truth: Poem and Verse Born in the Canadian Oil Patch was the title, by one Naden Parkin.  No publisher name. Must be self-published, I thought.  Parkin’s picture is on the back cover. Peaked cap, sunglasses. Round head, soft body, standing in snow in front of a Ford F150.  He looks like any of a dozen guys you’ll see in any small Alberta or Saskatchewan town standing outside the Co-op or the [Small Town Name] Hotel Tavern.  One of the thousands who end up working in the Oil Patch to support a young family, to make house payments, to pay for the case of beer on the two days out of twenty they aren’t working.  One of the thousands who do what they can in a perpetually un-diversified economy.

There are two testimonial blurbs on the back cover from poetry critics with whom I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar. One is from Logan Wild, of Discovery Channel’s Licensed to Drill.  The other is some very erudite words from Tim the thrashing machine Hague, UFC Heavyweight and former King of the Cage Heavyweight Champion:

A Relationship With Truth, offers an incredibly interesting and necessary glimpse into Alberta’s Oil-infused lifestyle.  We have the chance to see how Canada’s life blood has affected one man both negatively and positively.  This book is a treat to read from start to finish.

For anyone with preconceptions about Alberta and those who work in the Oil Patch, the whole package would seem surreal.  But here in Alberta we know the complicated contradictory truth.  Here in Edmonton, Oil Patch workers tend to be educated, are likely hipsters in their off time, collect art, go to live theatre, like to go out drinking with friends, enjoy sports, may well have voted NDP all their short lives, and are conflicted about Alberta’s and their own dependence on the fossil fuel economy.  And they may or may not drive a pick up truck.

It really shouldn’t be surprising to find a poet working in resource extraction — Robert Service in the Klondike and James Anderson in the Cariboo stand in that long line.  What I find startling and exciting is just how good Parkin’s poetry is.

A Relationship With Truth begins with a brief exhortation to the reader to “Listen”.  Whether he realizes it or not, Parkin is placing himself in the Prophetic poetic tradition occupied in English most particularly by Blake.  He has a profound message for us, if we have ears, and will,  to hear.

The second poem, “Wake Up”, is a cycling series of morning wake up calls which with remarkable economy show the generational cycle of domestic struggle and break up and hope and disappointment and perseverance of the Oil Patch life.  Here, at the outset, Parkin shows his rhythmic debt to Hip Hop, and it is clear that his poetry is meant not simply to be read aloud but to be declaimed and performed, a necessity made even more clear by “Something Inside”:

. . . Visions of mine,
A whole civilization blind, and victimized
As we lie below an invisible line
Beneath, the richest guys
Who bitch and cry over misplaced dimes
While we,
Risk our lives just to wish of times of bliss and pride
To see,
Retired at 65. Is it worth it? To work to die?
No please don’t believe those lies,
Slaves of our time
As am I. . . .

Parkin’s poetry exudes what might be seen as a rough socialism, but it’s actual a gentle communitarianism, a deep desire to get along fairly and honestly in a world in which dishonesty and greed are not rewarded.  He’s not calling for an overturning of the classes, but an idealistic, perhaps utopian, humane leveling, where everyone has enough and no one hoards at the expense of others.

I have written elsewhere, in the context of Irving Layton’s work,  about what Sir Maurice Bowra termed the Prophetic Element in poetry.  As well as clearly being in the Prophetic tradition, Parkin has something of the goaty Layton about him, in love poems such as “Goodbye”, “The Cutest Girl”, “After Love”, and “Fly Like That”, and in poems interested in chemical recreation such as “My Stoned Bliss” and the powerful and surprising earthy blend of “What I Love Doesn’t Matter”, a list of the worldly and not-so-worldly loves of the poet and an indictment of the narrowness of societal definition of the individual.

Parkin is  man of a very particular location, the oil lands of Saskatchewan and Alberta, once the bison killing-fields.  In “Northern Man” he says of the locations he lists as home:

You ask me, I’d invest in that
It’s natural gas and the oil patch
Western Canada, we’re blessed with that
And cursed with that
And if you think not, then you’re immersed in facts.

In 1959, when describing poets engaged in the Prophetic Element, Bowra wrote:

They feel that the ordinary methods of scientific or logical analysis are quite inadequate for the vast and terrifying issues befoe them and that their own kind of vision is a better way to the truth than the statistics and generalities with which publicists forecast .  ,  .
The Prophetic Element, p. 5

Immersed in facts, indeed.

Throughout the book, Parkin scatters short untitled poems, like the little gem on p. 17:

A flat land with a painted sky
Graced by the great herds
But all the grazers died.

The final line is a shock of banality because the grazers didn’t simply die – they were deliberatly exterminated, and everyone knows that fact.  And so we wonder: are the bison the great herds today? Or are human workers the grazers these days?  And we remember from “Something Inside”

. . . Is it worth it? To work to die?
No please don’t believe those lies,
Slaves of our time
As am I . . .

More than a hint of childhood trauma is buried in “The Pit”.  Parkin draws a nightmare vision of slippery references to let any childhood trauma fit and to make a definite become a universal claim of survival and reintegration in the last line:

He’s whole.

(with a play on “hole” as in “pit”, of course.)

Two poems use the image of a Heart of Gold: “Mortal’s Globe” which begins with the wonderful line:

You’ll never know whether I’m clever or slow

and the poem titled “Heart of Gold”.  I find no reason to doubt that, among other things, both poems reference Neil Young and his remarkably unnuanced opposition to Canada’s Oil Patch and it’s miners, so many with their hearts of gold.  Not only does “Heart of Gold” have an earthy whiff of Layton, it also mentions Optimus Prime, one of the more unexpected images of spiritual transformation in modern poetry.

A fascinating aspect of Parkin’s poetry is that from this young man, so immersed in the work of the Oil Patch, comes the constantly echoing warning that when it comes to living on this earth and saving it for future generations, “It’s Up To You”:

. . . gotta use yer main nerve

or crater

What ya do when ya lose and the music takes yer
Shoes to the moon cause the view is great there
But lose old blue and we’re in
And the way we use crude you can’t blame her
Neck through the noose boots down and hand her
See the future’s looking screwed
When the few control the huge
And when the few control the fuel
The few control you
It’s lose lose unless you choose to
Save her.

And in “I Know” the poet is prophet again:

. . . know that I chose to show this
to let my soul expose what all of you already know
But you hold in.

And, in “Use Your Noodle”:

You’ve got to lose the fools and use your tools
And use your noodle to search for truth,
Instead of just using Google.

And so on, through “Why I’m Here”, “My Prayer for Humanity and “I Knew a Man”, which reminds me favourable of Leonard Cohen’s “The Captain”, Parkin the prophet strolls until the end of “Surviving” in which he flicks his mantle blue and takes his leave, with just a brief untitled envoi to the reader:

As this page closes I hope you’ve taken notes
You’re a day closer to laying under roses
A shame moments fade as we grow older
Feel as what I’ve shown you and make love before it’s over.

Consider Cohen’s “The Captain”:

There is no decent place to stand
In a massacre;
But if a woman take your hand
Go and stand with her.

Throughout A Relationship With Truth, Parkin makes clear that society is headed for a massacre of some degree, but always the horror of past, present and future is tempered by the gentleness of love, the simple things of life, and the free pleasures, like the Aurora Borealis on a crisp winter night.

A Relationship With Truth is a profound collection of poetry from an unexpected source that should be sought out, and Naden Parkin is an Oil Patch mud-man whom poets, poetry editors and poetry readers would do well to watch.

On “Distance Closing In” by Arleen Paré


Lake of Two Mountains, Arleen Paré‘s 2014 Governor General’s Award winning poetry collection celebrating/lamenting lifetimes of summers on the shores and waters of Quebec’s  Lac des Deux Montagnes at the confluence of the Ottawa and the St. Lawrence, a stone’s throw from Montréal, did not grab me with every poem.  Many poems definitely did grab me.  But none grabbed me quite as strongly as “Distance Closing In”, the first poem of the cycle. Rather than discussing the entire book, I will devote my attention to this single poem.

This devotion to a single poem should by no means be construed as a dismissal of the rest of the cycle: Lake of Two Mountains is a poetic tour de force, a magically varied study of years and generations of life in family and in solitude.  Only two things could do justice to the entire slim book: a much thicker book of close reading and analysis, or, more obviously, get the book and read it yourself, out loud, over the course of days and weeks, making notes if you like.  I did the second one because I’m lazy.  But I’m going to try to do a bit of a close reading of “Distance Closing In”.

I’ll reproduce all twelve lines of “Distance Closing In” because I consider such reproduction in this critical study to constitute Fair Dealing.  If Ms. Paré or her publisher, Brick Books, take issue I’ll remove the text. But I think such removal will be detrimental to an understanding of my critical argument, which argument is entirely praising of Paré’s poetic skill and artistry.

And so:


flint-dark     far-off
sky on the move across the lake
slant sheets closing in

sky collapsing from its bowl
shoreline waiting     taut
stones dark as plums

closer     future
flinging itself backwards
water now stippling thin waterskin

shallows pummelled     the world
hisses with rain    iron-blue smell
and pewter light ringing

The alliteration leaps out immediately, particularly for one familiar with Mediaeval English verse.  Five lines even have caesuras typographically indicated.

Flint-dark     far-off

the poem begins, like an Old English elegy, the fricatives exploding in the stressed syllables and in the line’s closing sound.  This is a poem of oral and aural activity.

And here we meet a remarkable thing. We read the poem — aloud without doubt — and our speech parts are flapping like everything.  But, look at the page —

Only one single word, a lonely “hisses”, is actually a verb.  This poem of great physical activity in the reading, is constructed almost totally of dull little nouns and fascinating gerundives.

Look at the things we might mistake for verbs:

“on the move” – prepositional phrase
“closing in” – gerundive and preposition
“collapsing” – gerundive
“waiting” – gerundive
“flinging” – gerundive
“stippling” – gerundive
“pummelled” – past participle (one might construe it as a verb in the preterite, but I think one would be wrong: the shallows are pummelled, they do not pummel the world.)
“hisses” – a verb!
“ringing” – gerundive

Apart from

                            the world
hisses with rain

the poem is verbally static.  No single thing actively does, all are adjectivally doing, or, in the case of the shallows, already bruised by their preterite pummelling.  Only the world, the totality, actively “hisses”.  All the bits make up a series of still images, frozen in the gerundive, pregnant with the potential of the rain, released when the hissing starts and the visual is cut through, the audible hiss releases the smell and the light and the senses become present in the synaesthesia of the visible sound of “light ringing” and the coloured odour of the “iron-blue smell”.

At the centre

closer     future
flinging itself backwards

The time has not been out of joint, it has been frozen, and now the future is closer, backward to the Now violently flung.  The tension is building timelessly until finally the release of the rain’s hiss, the storm, and time have broken.  The eternal stillness of the Lake’s potential here bursts into the Now with an iron-blue smell, and the sound of pewter light ringing.  The flint-dark is now truly far-off as the storm wakens and blends the senses in audible light.

“Distance Closing In” is a startling poetic construction carefully crafted of grammar, meaning, sound and the physical act of speaking the poem culminating in the expressive synaesthesia that fills the hissing, awakened, active world.

“Distance Closing In” is just one of fifty-seven poems in Lake of Two Mountains.  Paré is a viciously keen observer of the world in which she’s immersed and a meticulous crafter of her poems.  Lake of Two Mountains is a cycle of poems to be read carefully with all the focus and attention the reader can bring to the rewarding task.

On “Age of Minority” by Jordan Tannahill

I was an appropriate coincidence that I read Jordan Tannahill’s 2014 Governor General’s Award-winning trilogy of one act plays just as Alberta’s absurd Gay Straight Alliance “debate” reached it’s status quo hiatus.  Tannahill’s Age of Minority, consisting of Get Yourself Home, Skyler James, rihannaboi95, and Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes, present, as Tannahil writes in his Preface,

Three young people backed up against walls, metaphorically and literally, who risk everything for a chance to love and be loved. And all three, to some extent, are queer.  Beyond a merely sexual understanding of the word, they refuse the norms they are confronted with.  They are sublime outcasts.

The timing of my reading could not have been better.

I’ll confess a personal prejudice to begin.  This prejudice was unfortunately triggered when I flipped to the biography of Tannahill a the back of the book and read:

Jordan creates performances exploring the lives of diverse Torontonians.

And I thought “Oh, Lord! Not Toronto!”

I was unjust.  Tannahill is, as I so recommend to Edmonton’s arts community, making his own home the universal.  These plays are not about Toronto, they are about human experience.  I apologized for my anti-Toronto bigotry.

Now, to the brilliant plays.

As Tannahill says, these three plays are about young people who “to some extent, are queer.”

Skylar James is clearly — well, as clearly as anything in life is clear — lesbian. Get Yourself Home, Skyler James was developed for performance in school classrooms, for small audiences of students.  The cast of one would move from class to class over the course of a week or so, performing and reperforming the play.  I expect the heroine, lesbian army deserter Skyler James, became a sort of friend to many students and the seed of an informal school-wide Gay Straight Alliance.

rihannaboi95 is — well, what is he?  Is he gay?  He is certainly attracted to one man. Is he trans? Truth is ambiguity.  The play rihannaboi95 is a ground-breaking production.  The play was produced live on YouTube, not on stage.  The result is something more real-life than any theatre we normally experience.  rhiannaboi95 is a young man from an immigrant family who has a talent for dance and an obsession with pop star Rhianna.  But, because of his family and their culture, he can only be himself in secret YouTube videos.  But, of course, nothing on YouTube is secret, and an old-fashioned family isn’t the only danger for a “different” young man.

And Peter Fechter, the tragically failed escapee from East Berlin, the boy most literally Against The Wall, violently never allowed to become himself, whatever self that might have been.  We’ll never know what his relationship to Helmut would have been.  And that perpetual ignorance is the entire point.  This is a life snuffed out before its blossoming by the violence of dominant, unprotecting society.  Peter Fechter died, in actual historical fact, for the sins we continue to commit each day against the most vulnerable in our societies.

While Get Yourself Home Skyler James and rhiannaboi95 are true monodramas, with only a single character, a single voice on “stage”, Peter Fechter 59 Minutes has a few extra disembodied voices. But these voices are counterpoints and grace notes to Peter Fechter’s fifty-nine minute threnody to himself as he lies against the Berlin Wall, bleeding to death from a pelvic gunshot wound.  With this study of a young victim of Cold War stupid evil, Tannahill cries out for understanding and tolerance of difference.

The message of Age of Minority is not just about the LBGTQ “community”.  None of Tannahill’s three characters are part of such a community.  They are solitary, without support.  The emphasis is not on sexuality.  These plays are not about LBGTQ life in Toronto, Canada. They are about individuality, about types of individuality which are not accepted by society, which society tries to wipe out, whether that society is the military, school, family, Communist East Berlin, or YouTube.  We, the audience, come to not simply accept Tannahill’s characters, but to be charmed by them.  We like — perhaps love — them, not in spite of who they are, but because of who they are.  Such is the power of the one act monodrama in Jordan Tannahill’s startlingly creative hands.

Age of Minority is drama of great importance and Jordan Tannahill, still in his twenties, will certainly continue to be a leading voice in theatre for years to come.

Age of Minority is published by Playwrights Canada Press.

“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.

Hasty Thoughts on Angie Abdou’s “Between”

I can’t help thinking that “challenging” is an overused word in the book review shtick, but,  Angie Abdou’s Between is a challenging book.  It’s not challenging in a stylistic sense, like Joyce or Woolf — Abdou’s writing is laid-back and accessible.  And Between is not a monumental modern day À la recherche du temps perdu — it’s a quick three hundred pages covering a year in the lives of an upper-middle class Canadian family and their Filipina nanny.  Potentially pretty tame stuff.  And while Between is perhaps challenging  in that it acknowledges that parenting is often gruelling, that one must often “make the conscious choice to laugh instead of cry”, the deep challenge of the novel, I think, is a challenge to our fundamental assumptions about what is desirable in life.

“Between” is the story of Vero and Shane, 40-something parents of Eliot and Jamal and Ligaya, the nanny they bring to Canada to look after their children.  The basic premise in some ways makes me roll my eyes like Debbie in Stoppard’s The Real Thing: “Infidelity among the architect class. Again.”  Rich people have it so tough.  As annoyingly self-absorbed and blinkered as Vero and Shane are, what becomes quickly clear is that they are a mirror held up to Canadian affluence.  What starts out as the story of a couple suffering the burden of success, desperately trying to find themselves or lose themselves in drugs and sex, soon becomes a mesh of interwoven metaphors pointing to larger issues than “Where will Vero get her Percocet today?”

Early in the book, Shane tells Vero “We can have everything. Let’s take it.” This becomes their almost unwavering policy through the book, from bringing Ligaya to Canada, through their Saturnalian Jamaican holiday, to the final crisis in Ligaya’s basement bedroom.  Near the middle of the book, Vero remembers (and quickly forgets) a statement her own mother once made:

My generation worked for a world in which women could do anything. Your generation misinterpreted that to mean that you must do everything.

Shortly after, Vero and Shane are at the Jamaican resort named “Hedonism”, making a brave effort to do, in fact, everything.

There is a sense of panic in “Between”. Vero spends her days frantically doing little or nothing.  Her work is proofreading manuals for military equipment, manuals which will be translated into Arabic, rendering her work pointless.   Her children seem to be little other than frustrating pieces of furniture until Ligaya takes over as parent. At that point the boys become cute things to look at before another round of Bikram Yoga.  Vero is unable to see the obvious: she doesn’t want the life and the family she’s constantly chasing.  Almost all that’s left for here is the meaningless chase.

Ligaya, on the other hand, can’t have the life she wants with her family in the Philippines.    She is constantly and productively working to make life better for her employers and for their children in order to make life better for her own family.  Neither woman is particularly happy, but Ligaya’s life has purpose beyond “I can have it, so I’ll take it. I can do it, so I must.”

And, Ligaya’s thought: “This world is not made for women. Not in the Philippines. Not here. Maybe not anywhere.”  This fact is made most explicit (word chosen carefully) at the resort which is “everywhere and nowhere”, where the rules are clearly made by men.

Before the Jamaican holiday, Vero, talking like an English major, says “sex is a metaphor!” Although no one seems to realize it in the book, the holiday proves her absolutely right.  In fact, almost everything in Between is a metaphor.  The resort is “nowhere and everywhere”.  “Bikram yoga: destroying the environment one tree pose at a time!” “SWEAT KILLS!”  In a surreal scene, Vero demands of a young man “Protest the oil sands, the war in Iraq, the cuts to public transit, for God’s sakes.”

And the young man’s response sums up Vero and Shane’s life, Between and our world: “They’re all the same thing.”

In the end, Abdou offers a solution, a resolution to vast, tangled web of self-deception which is a big metaphor for our diseased, tangled, self-deceiving  society: the outsider takes control.  Remembering that Ligaya’s name means “Happiness” in Tagalog, the final two words of the novel provide yet another layer of metaphor, and a touch of hope:

“Ligaya drives.”

“Lightfinder” by Aaron Paquette: Comparisons Will Inevitably Be Made

(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.