Friday, June 20, 2014

"THE ORENDA" by James Boyden: A Reflection

A quote from "The Walrus," a Canadian on-line magazine:

“There is a long history of writers being, in some way, leaders in society,” [John Ralston] Saul says. “Not that they necessarily write political books. It’s more that a great writer has a compelling belief system.”  [Saul] toured the country with [James] Boyden to promote the series ["Extraordinary Canadians"], and noted his authority and gravitational pull within the First Nations community. “Aboriginal kids see him as a role model,” he adds.   

"Margaret Atwood directs me to the chapter on First Peoples in Survival, her influential study of Canadian literature. The book, published in 1972, envisioned a time when First Nations Canadians would not be “made into projections of something in the white Canadian psyche, a fear or a wish.” Instead, they would be “considered in and for themselves.” 

Citing Alberta novelist Rudy Wiebe as an underappreciated interim figure, she says she predicted that “Joseph Boydens would arise” to tell those stories fairly and fully. Atwood sat on the Giller jury that chose not to short-list "The Orenda", a decision she prefers not to discuss.”

-- from an essay about Boyden in “The Walrus”

John Ralston Saul, writer, publisher, president of International PEN

Amazing.  Saul, Boyden’s publisher, actually went on the book tour with him.  Saul commissioned Boyden to write a book about Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont for his series “Extraordinary Canadians.”  I’ve just ordered it.   

Here’s Allan Gregg in conversation with Boyden.

Usually book manuscripts are said to go to publishers “over the transom” on the way in, but this time Darrell Reimer (AKA Whiskey Prajer) has more-or-less thrown two books at me “over my transom,” both of them bound, reviewed, celebrated, and embroiled in the eternal obsession of Canada with itself and its origins.  And they happen to transect something I think about, which may be why this blog accumulates middle-aged men who have a “young man” vibe and who write, but not necessarily successfully in terms of money.  They tend to obsess about heroism and mysticism. They are quite willing to tell me all about it, so I do reflect.  (Am I Margaret Atwood?  In part.  But where are the voices of the aboriginal kids these white folks want to tell us about?)

Gabriel Dumont

Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont are vital to this part of the world, since Red River Nation people took refuge on the US side, some of them among the Blackfeet.  Riel is the visionary, the sometimes crazy mystic, and Dumont is the guy who knows how to negotiate.  Regina at the time was something like St. Louis at the same time, except that up there the fur buyers had to go overland to Hudson’s Bay so weren’t as interested in bison hides as in high-value small creatures, like mink or beaver.  But this particular group of Metis -- who lived on plots that had one small riverfront side for water access, since water was a highway, and then acreage extending away (like St. Louis) -- wanted to own their own land as a group with a boundary within what was just changing from a Hudson’s Bay property into proper provinces of Canada.  They didn't intend to displace Canada so much as claim their own space within it, but the authorities saw them as terrorists.

Western people, barely identifying as Canadian, were sympathetic, but the Protestant Anglo power structure -- paranoid as usual -- set out to destroy them and seemed to succeed, though the Metis only went underground.  Or to Montana.  The many French names around here are traces of them. Riel was their saint, Dumont was their rational, effective general.  Joseph Kinsey Howard told an early version of the story in "Strange Empire."  My other tie to this story is that my paternal family homesteaded in Manitoba and were briefly wealthy in Brandon.  My father’s bachelor’s degree was from the U of Manitoba.  No one in that family ever even mentioned the Red River rebellion.  I'm not sure they knew about it, but how could they not?

In his youth I think my father had literary pretensions, though he never carried through on them or had any notion of how to get hold of ideas to turn them into something real.  They say that oldest daughters try to fulfill the goals of their fathers.  (Or was it mothers?  Not in my case -- though she tried hard to be the high-status respected person that HER father wanted to be.)  John  Pinkerton was a defiant Irishman as opposed to my defiant Scots paternal great-grandfather, Archibald Strachan.

The Canadian authorities, extensions of England, had more animosity against Irish and Scots than against the French Catholic Metis.  “The Orenda” is about war between two huge aboriginal nations -- Huron and Iroquis -- which a Jesuit priest walks into and ends up influencing, both in history and "The Orenda".  I got that off a review.  I’m finding this book very unpleasant to read.  (One can imagine boys reading it and exclaiming, "Jeez!" and "Gaw!")  The introductory ordeal is about capture of a Jesuit in winter -- twenty pages written in an airport concourse.  It's convincing, but last winter went to thirty-below, it was not comfortable, and I’ve thought about it enough.  Anyway, I’m not big on Woodland Tribes and their involvement in the entering wedge of Europe, warriors fighting on both sides, sometimes determining outcomes.  Too bad they didn’t have guns, horses, walls and flags.  

Recommending Rudy Wiebe to me as an exemplar of writing about First Nations backfires.  I’ve met him.  Here's his voice:   He explains that his version of Mennonite comes through Russia -- Darrell Riemer’s version is gentler and more American in the sense of North America.  Wiebe in person is arrogant, stiff, opinionated, thinks he owns indigenous people and is incredibly naive about women.  That IS Ukrainian Russian.  Darrell is farther to the east.  I don’t know his particulars, but I certainly prefer his style.   I'd love to spend some time with John Ralston Saul.

Maybe some of this stuff accumulates into a certain kind of man created by expectations of place, family and self.  How heroic does a man have to be?  How famous?  How rich?  What counts? How much does a man have to suffer?  We sit in our Christian churches pondering an example splayed in front of us.

I suppose the sub-type of these men that I’ve known best have been grandiose narcissists.  (I don’t see why that has had to be pejorative and stigmatized.  It's a feminist obsession.)  Coping with such men at the very least keeps a person on their toes, but they are hard on male children unless the man has reached some kind of moral center in himself, possibly based on mysticism of some kind.  Then they attract boys the way iron filings cling to magnets, so naturally and so irresistibly.  In my opinion, Bob Scriver never did reach this moral center, but he certainly pressed me hard to find my own -- not on purpose -- and maybe that was part of his search.  He hoped I'd teach him.  Pretty tough since he needed to be always right, which is a self-defeating way to go.  In the end, I abandoned morality, at least the conventional version. Mine is much stricter.

I'm attracted to competent people.  He was a skilled, focused, powerful person who pushed through barriers.  I suppose he was like "Dumont".  His French-Canadian brother-in-law, the one who posed for the Scriver Jesus portraits, was more of a "Riel."  Two men with strong ties but not brothers go back to the beginning of being human.  Bob Scriver and James Welch Sr. as kids exploring the railroad snowshed and nearly being squashed; Tom and Huck; Gilgamesh, in tales from both Old Testament and New; the man who became friends with the beaver's son.   The story seed grows some powerful adventures, some of them deadly ordeals.  This still doesn’t quite explain to me why critics would admire Boyden’s description of a man’s frozen testicles in an agonizing restoration of circulation.  But then, I didn’t really want to know about Margaret Mead’s small waist and wide bum, either.  It’s as though writers can’t write about “primitive” people without telling us the things forbidden in polite society.

Is this how to be a model for aboriginal kids?  Oh, just NOTICING THAT THEY EXIST is a beginning.  They still today freeze their balls, get captured and knifed, go into visions, live off rage, and form close relationships with other boys.  But I don’t think that’s what James Ralston Saul had in mind.  It’s just an effective selling point.

Aboriginals are really into the hospitality industry.

Of course, the great hue and cry about whether Boyden is “Indian enough” is underway, but it makes a lot more sense up north where the tribal people still have an obvious ethnographic identity instead of just a membership entitlement card.  For Boyden to recover some of the past farther east and south -- where today to be Mohawk is to be an ironworker on skyscrapers in Manhattan -- can’t be a bad thing.  To recapture the massive injustice and pure greed, the terrible suffering imposed on innocents on both sides, is probably beyond any writer.  An exercise in grandiose narcissism.  But, you know, some good work can come out of the attempt.  And it may be helpful when the great reconfiguration of nations that I see coming actually lets All Peoples sit at the table.

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