Porcupines and China Dolls by Robert Arthur Alexie, published by Theytus Books, was the second of my prizes, though I'm writing about it in the full knowledge that this might be a book no one 'wants' to read.
If you do read it that cover will also make perfect sense.
It was Margaret Atwood who once identified the 'intolerable anxiety' at the heart of Canadian literature when she examined it in her book Survival back in 1972... 'those who made it back from the awful experience.'
And with reference to the Native voice which
'emerges in Canadian literature as the ultimate victim of social oppression and deprivation,... the missionary teachers imposing on the Indian children a culture they have no interest in learning and which will accomplish nothing for them.'
Margaret Atwood pinpoints a marked reluctance to write about this subject, but that was then, this is now.
Raised in the Northwest Territories, Robert Arthur Alexie was one of those Native children sent to residential school and thus I assume very well-qualified to write a book that explores the 'dark legacy of the system. The system whereby the federal government removed the Native children from their parents in order to educate them, forbade them to speak their own language, practice their own religion or honour their own culture, and separated them from their families for ten months of the year.
Porcupines and china dolls became the children's names for themselves when the first of many insults has been visited on them,
'The boys are herded into a large room where a missionary takes a pair of scissors and cuts their hair. No one says anything. They just watch. After everyone's hair is cut they're told to remove their clothing and put them in a pile. They don't know it but the missionaries are going to burn their clothing along with their hair and whatever else they brought with them.'
It's obvious that whilst the children may be cleansed in this way, nothing else is going to be sanitised, no detail is going to be spared by Robert Arthur Alexie in his fictional, but I suspect highly truth-based account of the damage done by this system.
The narrative flows between childhood and adult experiences, inner narratives punctuate the bleakness of blighted lives, all heart-breakingly sad as the damage to a culture and a way of life is wrought by a system designed to oppress and erase it. Emotionally deprived and dislocated from their souls as children, and catapulted as adults into a meaningless life of booze, lust and a mind-numbing boredom, Robert Alexie presses this misery home to the reader with page after page (often forthright and explicit) which becomes as repetitive as the daily lives.
If I have one issue with this book it's the sheer volume of pages devoted to this.
Less might have been more and though sorely tempted to skim and skip, I didn't, I read it all, every last 'f' and 'c' word ...and if these offend this may not be the book for you. Though in places the book feels rough and raw, it's written from the heart and I found it impossible not to bear witness to the vacuous existence, tainted by dark secrets of sexual abuse all revealing just how much emotional damage had been done.
With each chapter prefaced by a short paragraph detailing a lone, hungry and ageing wolf who stalks his prey through the pages, I rightly or wrongly decided to interpret this as a metaphor for the unsayable within the lives of so many of the characters as they too move in for the kill, and decide to disclose and name and shame.
Others may see it differently.
This is sounding really jolly isn't it, but I make no apology for that and be assured there is redemption before you turn the final page, even if the book does open with a suicide and you may like me, spend the rest of it wondering quite which of these characters it might be. Nothing is predictable beyond the evidence that many of them have plenty of reasons to be standing on that highway in the Blue Mountains, in the black leather jacket with the trigger ready to pull,
'What came was something he didn't expect: hate, rage, anger and sorrow. They burst from his tormented soul, and ripped a hole in his chest and were given a voice. It sounded like a million deaths rolled into one. They spread out over the land of his People, shook the sky, then echoed off the distant mountain and disappeared into the hell where they belonged.'
So there's no escaping the brutality of Porcupines and China Dolls, and if you do read it (and if you enjoy Joseph Boyden's novels, this one, though not in the same league complements those issues he raises) and if you can excuse that rawness of writing style, I don't think you will be disappointed at the honesty and impact of a book that sheds light on a nation's past and the institutional abuse of a system that continued until 1975.
I knew so little about how this was all perceived in Canada, so I was grateful for the arrival of The Magnetic North, Travels in the Arctic by Sara Wheeler for some insight into the history and attempts at reconciliation and compensation for the Aboriginal peoples back in the 1990s.
The situation is complex, and conflicting versions of history seem to have added to the confusion so I have no idea how a book like Porcupines and China Dolls may have been received in Canada, though I think I know from reading Joseph Boyden's speech From Mushkegowuk to New Orleans that this is all recognised by many as an accepted travesty that may take many generations to resolve.
'The idea behind this was simple: remove the Indian from the Indian, and in this way integrate the native population into the white mainstream...the effects of this system, forced upon a whole population against their will take generations to undo. And so, we're in it for the long run people'
It all caused me to reflect on the purpose of an uncomfortable book like this within the arc of my reading life, until I realise that life is not always as comfortable as it seems either. It's very easy to become complacent about life's ills when you live in a beautiful place surrounded by peace and relative solitude; far more comfortable after a lifetime of working with other people's woes to think I've done my bit, I don't need to read about it.
But actually I want my reading to reflect it all, the whole lot.
I don't want to miss a thing, I want to listen and hear the howls and the whispers wherever they may be...
'The old wolf stood on the ridge and looked out across the land. He was lonely and longed for the company of the pack, but they were gone. He looked to the heavens and howled no one answered.'