Lately I have reviewed several books either about or by First Nations people. Hence, the title Speak to Me in Indian (Baraka Books, 2015) caught my attention. The author David Gidmark has spent considerable time living among the Algonquin people of northern Quebec (he currently lives in Maniwaki, QC) and this is his first novel.
Ostensibly, this is a First Nation love story, but Mr. Gidmark’s narrative goes much deeper than that, covering many of the major issues facing a Native trying to live in the White Man’s world. This, I feel is also part of it’s undoing, but more about that later. The two principals Shane Bearskin (a Cree from Moose Factory, ON) and Theresa Wawati (an Algonquin) are living in Montreal, each one attending college. Theresa wants to be a lawyer so she can help her people and Shane’s desire is to one day return to Moose Factory to teach. Shane’s room mate is Jim Gull from Attawapiskat First Nations, which is on the western side of James Bay.
Do you think an Indian could live in the woods today like the people did long ago?” Jim asks. “I don’t know,” Shane says. “I think so.”
A return to the woods becomes the main determination for Shane and Theresa towards the end of the novel, after some life-altering events take place (no spoilers here!). The first three chapters introduce a young Shane who is sent off to a residential school at age six, and Theresa, whose family is torn apart by a raging, alcohol-fueled father. Later on in life, she is to have her own children torn from her due to her weakness for the bottle.
So Many Problems, and Yet…
As I mentioned earlier, this novel covers many of the major issues facing aboriginal people today, perhaps too many for one novel, and the majority of them are embodied in Theresa’s character: abusive father, removal of her own children due to her alcohol addiction, then adopted by a white family (who never really consider her on equal terms as their own daughter), and despite turning herself around, a relapse that leads to a physical and sexual assault.
Shane, on the other hand (and Jim Gull too), seems like a reasonably adjusted individual, in spite of his experience in a residential school where he was beaten by a nun for not speaking English, even though he was only six years old and knowing only the Cree language. He was also the victim of an attempted molestation by the priest. Nevertheless, Shane is the stable, supportive part of the relationship, and he and Theresa rarely fight. He is compassionate and caring, wanting only to make Theresa happy, for he loves her smile.
However, I found this novel somewhat unsatisfying despite it being otherwise enjoyable to read. Unsatisfying in that everything happens (or has happened) to Theresa, and while I am sure that such unfortunate persons exist in real life (aboriginal or otherwise), it just seemed like overkill to embody them all in one person. Shane and Theresa could have set out to find her children, but instead he gives her a kitten which she names “Annie” after daughter, much to Shane’s disappointment. Also, the building of their cabin in the remote woods of northern Quebec was effected very easily (too easily?) by Shane, all on his own. Then he proceeds (albeit at Theresa’s urging) to go on a three-day adventure in the middle of winter in which he almost loses his life. This seemed kind of pointless to me, considering Theresa was left alone in a weakened state to fend for herself. These were the unsatisfying, or disquieting parts of Speak to Me in Indian.
Disquieting parts aside, I read this book in just a few days since I was keenly interested in the characters. Mr. Gidmark also keeps the narrative quite authentic by inserting both the Algonquin and Cree language in conversations and using actual places like Lac Camatose where a roadblock is set up by the natives from the La Verendrye reserve as a protest for being ignored by Ottawa. Also, there is the brief period of time Shane spends with Patrick Matchewan, a master birch bark canoe builder. The author himself is a lecturer on the birch bark canoe, so he knows of what he writes. All of this keeps the narrative solidly established in reality.
I definitely would not hesitate to read Mr. Gidmark’s next title since I did enjoy this one overall. In the end, Speak to Me in Indian is a love story encompassing the wisdom and resiliency of the aboriginal people and as such, is well worth reading.