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Mouse Woman and the Vanished Princesses – Christie Harris

12 March 2016

When I was about ten years old, my godmother, an ex-pat Kiwi living on Vancouver Island, sent me a book by Christie Harris, Raven’s Cry. A history of the Haida Gwaii from contact to the time of writing, it became one of my all-time favourite books. I snap up any of her books that come into the shop now, even though most of what I get are ex-library. I’ll replace them as I find better copies. In addition to reading any Harris I can find, I’ve put a trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands on my bucket list.

I can find no indication that she had First Nations blood herself; Christy Harris was born in the US in 1907 and came to Canada as a child. She became a teacher and raised her own brood of five in southern BC, where she also began her writing career. Although she wrote other novels and collections for young readers, my favourite Harris books are still the ones that deal with the First Nations stories of the Canadian Pacific Coast.

I hope she hasn’t fallen under that banner of ‘Cultural Appropriation’ so many like to flutter around. Her work has brought alive the history and lore of Haida Gwaii like no other work has, to an audience that needs to learn about other cultures and accept them if we are to overcome racism in future generations.

Yet her books are out of print and not so easy to find although at least one was reissued after her death in 2002.

Mouse WomanMouse Woman and the Vanished Princesses focusses on a series of legends with the common themes of missing chieftains’ daughters and the role of the smallest of the narnauks (supernatural beings), Mouse Woman, in coming to their aid and rescue. Couldn’t we use a Mouse Woman now!

I love the way this author tells the stories. She maintains the strong voice of the people she is representing. There is a rhythm to the tale, created in part by the repetition of key phrases and ideas typical of teaching stories. They are full of humour, which helps to make them easy to remember.

Human nature brings the First Nations characters into trouble. The narnauks discipline them in a way that provides them with a little fun as well as a little revenge. Narnauks are not free from flaws and vice themselves, so frequently their plans backfire – thanks, often, to Mouse Woman’s efforts to find loopholes in the rules. Mouse Woman has a tender spot in her heart for young people, perhaps because she is so small that she isn’t taken all that seriously by her people. She shares a common bond in that with her youthful protegees.

Harris wrote down these stories at a time when the First Nations people of our country were in a very dark place. Fortunately, the worm is turning. At the time Harris wrote, though, there was a very real fear that, if these stories were not somehow preserved, they would be lost forever to future generations. She worked closely with the Edenshaws and with the famous Haida carver, Bill Reid, to preserve the culture. But not only to preserve it. She also used these stories to build bridges between two peoples that were in a deep struggle full of anger, hatred, disrespect, misunderstanding and all the other horrible attributes of racism. I believe she left a legacy that is still deeply valid and useful today, and I really hope her collections return to the shelves again soon.

Finders Keepers 11

27 February 2016

Look at this beautiful scene! One of my favourite finds in books is old post cards.

This one is so beautiful. It's an odd size, too.

Especially if there’s a letter to read on the other side. This one was sent in 1913.

Teepees Postcard back

Why was it such a hard pull? Was Tanner operating a railway jigger (that’s only half a joke)? Or was this an emotional pull?

Is this a descendant of ‘The Falcon’, this E Tanner?

Did Tanner live in Carberry, or was the little village another stop on a longer journey?

So many questions…

Dancing with a Ghost – Rupert Ross

6 November 2013 2 Comments

This review is one I wrote shortly after the book was published in 1992. Since then, Rupert Ross has gone on to lead a Royal Commission on the subject of making Canada’s legal system more effective in First Nations cases, and has written a second book, Returning to the Teachings, which further addresses the issues.

The news these days is full of features on Native Canadians and their struggle for self-government, for recognition of their rights and status as the First Peoples of North America and for justice – not simply in the terms of rectifying past wrongs against their people, but in terms of the present lack of understanding in today’s western justice system. Theirs is a voice full of angerr and frustration that is turning increasingly to violence as the only means of attaining the public ear.

Many non-natives find it difficult to accept the plight of First Nations. Many think that the standard of living for First Nations people has improved since Whites discovered the continent. Native Peoples get all kinds of freebies from the government that should more than compensate for any injustices of the past. Why can’t they see just how good they’ve got it?

0143054260In his book, Dancing with a Ghost, Rupert Ross explains the need for communication between the two main cultural groups – Natives and Non-Natives. Western cultures have a tradition of seeing their way as the best way, the most civilized way, the ideal way, which must be adopted by all cultures if the world is to run smoothly. Suddenly, they are waking up to the fact that something is going wrong – has been going wrong for a long time. There is a fundamental difference in the world view of our two cultures that westerners need to understand, appreciate and accept before they can win the respect of the Native Peoples. Only when this has been achieved can everyone begin to work effectively together.

Dancing with a Ghost is a collection of observations and experiences that has led one man to a better understanding both of the problem and its eventual solution. Mr. Ross does not presume to be an expert but, rather, a participant in a frustrating cycle that must be broken. While this book is written from the perspective of an Assistant Crown Attorney who is struggling with the issue in a legal environment, his quest has led Mr. Ross to a better understanding of the fundamental differences in our cultures and therefore can act as an invaluable aid to all of us who participate in the problem, regardless of our occupation or field of interest.

Seven Generations

1 November 2012

This is a beautifully produced story of a young man struggling to overcome the legacy of Residential School told in graphic novel form. We have both the omnibus (in colour) and the four volumes bound separately (black and white illustrations) in stock now. Here’s the trailer for the Omnibus version for your pleasure!

Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country: Travelling in the Land of my Ancestors – Louise Erdrich

14 January 2012

[Originally published in Lake of the Woods Area News Magazine]

I don’t sell a lot of new books anymore; unless they relate to this part of Northwestern Ontario my stacks are strictly used and out-of-print. As a result, publishers have forgotten about me and seldom contact me when something in my area of interest comes out. Now, it is usually my customers who tell me there is something new on the Lake out there to read.

This particular book seems to have slipped under the radar of locals. I learned about it from a Manitoban author friend, Donna Sutherland, who knew of my interest as a former archaeologist in ‘Rock Art’ – that is petroglyphs and pictographs made by First Nations people on the bedrock of the nation. Donna mentioned she was reading it on her annual sailboat tour of the Lake of the Woods.

My curiosity was aroused; Louise Erdrich is a pretty big name on the U.S. literary scene. I’ve had my eye on her for a while but never have I read one of her books. I decided this was the one that would serve as my introduction.

Erdrich’s conversational, reflective style drew me to her immediately. I felt as if I was sitting with her in her kitchen, while her toddler pottered with various benign kitchen utensils on the floor beside us. The whole book has that sense of friendly intimacy about it.

We begin as Louise packs her vehicle and sets out from Minneapolis, where she has left her bookshop in the hands of capable staff. (Yes, there’s one more thing I find we have in common: a bookshop!) Throughout her drive to Lake of the Woods, she reflects on her love for and relationship with books; her daughters, her new daughter, whose father lives on Lake of the Woods and is a member of the Big Island First Nation; and her Ojibway culture and its ancient form of ‘books,’ ‘written’ on birchbark scrolls and the rocks along the waterways they travelled. This trip to Lake of the Woods is to meet with her daughter’s father and further explore these paintings and their shared culture with him.

Although I don’t entirely agree with history as she presents it – I feel the archaeological evidence doesn’t support as lengthy an Ojibway presence in this area as she believes – I find other information she shares about current interpretations of the images fascinating and enlightening. Although her figures regarding water level changes are historically arguable, the fact that several villages were permanently drowned out by the dams of the Winnipeg River is true, and reading her Ojibway version of recent history is really worthwhile. It is presented without malice or resentment, without hatred but with natural regret and disappointment, with an eagerness to preserve what remains of the culture and to build from that.

Of less interest, perhaps, to Lake of the Woods readers – but I doubt having read this far anyone could put the book down – is the last part of her journey, to Rainy Lake and the amazing island library-sanctuary of Ernest Oberholtzer.

Books and Islands in Ojibway Country is a beautiful book, a must for any Lake of the Woods library. As you read it, you’ll find that Erdrich’s writing style brings you right to the shore, her words the warm, summer water lapping at your toes. After reading it, you will see the lake with new eyes and feel a deeper affinity toward it . Louise is one of the best writers I’ve read in a long time. She brings you along without even trying, and you will find yourself loving every aspect of the journey.

Susan Rocan – Withershins * Spirit Quest

19 October 2011 2 Comments

Susan Rocan is another author appearing at this year’s Word on the Water Festival in Kenora (Oct. 21-23). She has two books in print now, both written for teens: Withershins and Spirit Quest; both following the time-travel adventures of Michelle, an eleventh grade student who begins her story with a trip to St. Andrew’s on the Red to research a history project.

Michelle comes across as the Clark Kent of time travellers. She’s very reluctant to trespass on the site of St. Andrew’s with her male project mates, but they coerce her into being the first to try the withershins ritual – racing around the Church building three times at midnight, dodging ancient graves in the mist-shrouded light of the full harvest moon. But Michelle doesn’t make it. Just before she completes her third circumnavigation, she trips in the fog and lands… in 1846!

Rocan recreates the bustle of Lower Fort Garry and the lifestyle of its inhabitants and visitors in a way that is both believable and engaging. Michelle copes surprisingly well with the help of two friends at the fort. Withershins builds her relationships with the people of the Stone Fort and familiarises her with the life of settlers, traders, soldiers and all the supporting characters of trading-post life. Interesting as the author makes Michelle’s challenges and predicaments, and as much a part of Fort Garry life as I felt while reading the book, this bothered me a bit. For only very shortly after she arrives in 1846, Michelle meets a group of First Nations people encamped near the Fort gates. Their Medicine Man, Owl-Who-Sees-All, informs her that she was chosen by the Creator to act an important role: bridging the gap in Saulteaux tradition and knowledge for the people of her era. Yet these First Nation characters play a back-seat role in Withershins.

I kept on wondering about this odd state of affairs until I picked up the sequel, Spirit Quest. I wish the two books had been published as one. The second book picks up right from where the first ended, and sewing the two books into one binding would have eliminated the need for some awkwardness in both the conclusion of Withershins and beginning of Spirit Quest. Readers wouldn’t have been faced with wondering why the Saulteaux were playing a surprisingly less significant role in the story than expected, because the focus of the second part of the book would have taken them into the prominence Withershins requires readers to believe they should have. Spirit Quest is the story of Michelle’s coming of age, of her reaching maturity through following the ways of Owl-Who-Sees-All’s people and learning their traditions.

Although this is a pretty major criticism, don’t let it deter you from enjoying the books. On the whole, they are both well-written and engaging. They are a great way to expose the younger generation to what are, in many ways, the most interesting aspects of history – the daily lives of our ancestors – without the burden of textbook-dry facts and figures or the expectaion that this is something they are going to be tested on! In fostering an interest in history among her teen readers, Susan Rocan is ensuring a future interest in preserving our past and heritage. I wish Rocan had been writing when I was a teen. Perhaps I would have embarked on my own genealogical journey much earlier, since these books are all about the community in which my ancestors lived. Withershins and Spirit Quest would have really fired me up!

Given the ending of Spirit Quest, I suspect that there won’t be a third in the series. But I’m having a hard time putting Michelle out of mind, and I’d really like to spend some more time seeing how she handles life after time travel….

After the Mill – Mike Aiken

7 September 2011

After the Mill  is not a book to be picked up and read cover to cover. It came together as a collection of Treaty 3 current affairs readings spanning the years 2003 to 2010 and is meant to supplement a course or courses at the University of Manitoba. The collection has been organized into a series of topical groupings: Struggling for Cooperation, Forestry in Crisis, Sharing the Forest, Change in Governance, Building New Relationships and Investing in the Future. As such, it provides interesting snapshots of issues in which Kenora, Northwestern Ontario, the people of Treaty 3 communities and their various governments were, and still are, embroiled. Since the articles are all by one author who is centred in Kenora, there is a definite Kenora/Lake of the Woods/Winnipeg River regional focus.

Having said that, I did pick it up and read it cover to cover, and I found it an unusual experience. It really was rather like looking at a verbal photo album of the Kenora area. Although photographs can be very revealing they also can present a number of questions, which, given the nature of the collection, can only be answered if someone is there to help interpret or provide more information. So, readers who aren’t taking the course(s) that this book was designed to augment are at a distinct disadvantage. The book would be a useful reference to anyone studying First Nations issues in Northwestern Ontario, though, or any aspect of recent Northwestern Ontario social history and development.

Unfortunately, especially considering that After the Mill was published by an academic press, there are many typographical and grammatical errors that a good editor would have picked up – one article even ends mid-sentence! I found these disturbing, considering the use to which this little volume is being put. A particularly pleasant article that relates a trip “up the Winnipeg River with Dalles First Nation resident Larry Henry” from Darlington Bay to the Dalles is actually a trip down the River. These are small details that don’t affect the general import of the message, but they are errors distracting to knowledgeable readers and completely unacceptable in an academic publication.

Mike Aiken’s writing style is very readable. The journalistic presentation forces readers to draw their own conclusions from the material, which makes the collection an excellent academic tool. The scant supply of material also encourages the student to delve deeper through additional research. If you are hoping to find a complete package here, though, you will be disappointed; that’s not what this book is about!