Four good reads from First Nations authors

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A footnote to last week’s column – on a cold, stormy day I read David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating Disasters America Has Ever Known (Simon & Schuster, $23).

Published 50 years ago, it was a reminder that I once lectured in that town. While teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, I took on courses in such places as Greensburg, Altoona and Johnstown. Yes, a bored bunch of teachers wanting to be school librarians – until I talked about Andrew Carnegie, the father of public libraries. The Johnstown crowd came awake, telling me tales of the dam at South Fork Lake and the damage done. Maybe it was Carnegie’s fault – maybe not.

Then I spent the rest of the week deeply immersed in First Nations novels. Yes, I call them the original people, the First Nations. Not Indians. Indians come from India. This is not it.

Having saved four titles to bunch together, I began with Drew Hayden Taylor’s Chasing Painted Horses (Cormorant, $32.95). Ralph Thomas is a Toronto policeman, on patrol in the Big Smoke. He comes across graffiti of a horse in an alleyway. An indigenous man watches him. They go have coffee in a nearby Tim’s. The painting is a throwback to the Otter Lake Reserve (read Curve Lake, the author’s home) and Danielle, a forgotten child who paints on a wall.

Chasing Painted Horses is a magical novel, a book with fable qualities and quite my favourite of the moment. A reread awaits me. Taylor, a playwright, journalist, short-story writer, novelist, documentary genius, and so much more has penned a work that kept me glued to each page. As an introduction to First Nations literature, look no further.

I have been reading Eden Robinson since her first work – a bunch of short stories called Traplines. Then came Monkey Beach (a national bestseller) and Son of a Trickster, the first of a trilogy. I caught the second installment as the snow blew sideways. Trickster Drift (Knopf Canada, $32) centres on Jared, age 17. He has quit drinking and drifting and now heads from Kitimat to Vancouver for school.

A year of sobriety is not enough to submerge the magic in Jared. Thinking he is safe from booze and his stalker David, Jared is a magnet for magic – whether he likes it or not. Jared cannot ignore his background and neither can the reader.

In the end, “Jared felt fear surging through him, fear of himself, of what he could do, of messing up any more than he had, and that fear paralyzed him so he couldn’t answer …. Crap, he thought.” And how will Robinson end the saga? Stay tuned.

Cherie Dimaline has been writing for a decade or more. A career as a First Nations woman, she has been a museum curator, the CO of an Indigenous investment company, and director of a Women’s Centre. She is best known to me and the reading world as the author of The Marrow Thieves, an end-of-the-world book that somehow got classed as a young adult novel. It ended up as a national best-seller and one of those works that sticks in the mind, long after.

Dimaline is originally from the Georgian Bay Metis Community but now lives in Vancouver. Empire of Wild (Random House Canada, $29.95) is her first “adult” novel.

“Joan has been searching for her lost husband (Victor) for eleven months and six days, since last October when they’d fought about selling the land she’d inherited from her father and he’d put on his grey jacket and walked out the screen door banging behind him.”

On a hung-over morning in a Walmart parking lot in a little Georgian Bay town, broken –hearted Joan is lured into a revival tent to hear a charismatic preacher. It is Victor? Inspired by the traditional story of the Ragarou – a werewolf-like reminder of a creature who haunts the Metis – Joan is determined to discover the truth. Is the Reverend Wolf her Victor or not?

Joan has a couple of allies. One is her 12-year-old nephew and the other a euchre shark with a recollection of the old ways. Victor/Wolf says, “This entire empire of wild is ours in order that we may rejoice in His name.” What name, what wild, who the heck is he?

Joan says, “She could barely breathe. She had no hymns, no prayers. Hymns only work if you can sing past the constellations named for pagan deities – Orion’s Belt, the Chained Maiden – to reach a Creator willing to listen. And what is prayer when your own god has been plucked out of the wing-dark sky?”

Goosebumps? You bet I had them after Empire of Wild. But this is not the last we have heard from this Metis writer. She signed a four-book deal with a publisher. More is yet to come to this inspired writer who was named “Emerging Artist of the Year,” won the CBC Canada Reads contest, and who is the first Indigenous Writer-in-Residence at the Toronto Public Library.

Karen McBride is a Algonquin Anishinaabe writer from the Timiskaming First Nations in what is now Quebec. Crow Winter (HarperAvenue, 22.95) is her first novel. Since coming home to Spirit Bear Point First Nation, Hazel has been dreaming of an old crow who tells her he is there to save her. But from what?

Enter Nanabush who is of assistance in unraveling the medicine wheel that threatens her family, herself. Hazel replies, “Everything. For trusting me and teaching me. For showing me that I’m stronger that I think I am. For bringing me to all those memories.”

Crow Winter is said to be the name of the year when it snows too soon for it to be called winter. Like maybe the second week in October. That is long past but this novel keeps on circulating in my brain – it is that good.