Blackbird Calling by Laura Swart

When I first received Blackbird Calling (Quattro Books, 2016) and started reading it, I soon put it aside because I wasn’t ready for it, my mind wanted an ‘easy’ read at the time (it being summertime and the season of distractions, not to mention yard work) but I vowed to return to it one day. That day came months later, and I finished it in one day. And I wondered why I hadn’t returned to it sooner.

“I knew that an invisible kingdom drummed within me and around me, something more powerful and present than anything I could see with my eyes.”

Blackbird Calling is a story that exists on several levels. There is the story of an unidentified teenage girl who befriends Gloria Little Chief from the Blood tribe who lives in the “double houses” with other natives in another part of her neighbourhood. From Gloria and from her Ni’is (Uncle, I believe) she learns many things, such as the past treatment of native people, residential schools, reservation life and life lessons that she doesn’t receive from her own parents. Then there is the deeper context and the metaphors such as the marshland ecosystem where the Redwing Blackbird is king and how it mirrors life itself, as her brother’s wondrous stories highlight: “The wetland is not a wasteland as some suppose; it’s a Kingdom. And Red-winged Blackbird is King.” The girl thinks: “I knew that an invisible kingdom drummed within me and around me, something more powerful and present than anything I could see with my eyes.” Consider Hamish, an older boy who comes into the neighbourhood and changes the way the other children must play hide-and-seek in the neighbourhood:

“As the nights drained into weeks and months, Hamish gained more and more control. He picked the donkey each turn, directed people to their hiding spots, and decided when the game was over for the night. anyone who did not conform to the new rules fell into a void, like Indians in double houses, strangers outside the camp. Hide-and-seek seemed synthetic now, institutionalized.”

This brings to mind the way aboriginal people were herded onto reserves, pushed out of the lands they had occupied and cared for centuries before the white man came, then were subjected to the institutional residential school system in which generations of native people were forced to speak English and told to forget their native ways. This was one of the biggest takeaways of Blackbird Calling for me: how the children at the residential schools missed out on the stories the elders would have passed down to them, and how some of the stories would die with the elder or older tribe members, never to be told again:

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[Bonnie Plaited Hair (a mixed Cree and Blackfoot woman) laments]: “But we’re the mothers and fathers now. It’s up to us to teach our culture to the younger people. So many of the parents went to residential schools and didn’t pass on the culture. And now the youth are lost because they don’t know who they are. They don’t have their culture to lean on.”

I had never considered that particular cultural wound inflicted by those schools on native children and their future generations.

There are many gems to be gleaned from the few pages of this story. There are tragedies, misunderstandings, preconceptions and sometimes, outright violence against those with darker skin, high cheekbones and straight black hair. However, there is the awakening of the unnamed girl’s mind to her heretofore hidden native heritage and the way the land and creation can ‘speak’ and the importance of being attuned to what it says. I genuinely liked this novella and I gave it 4/5 stars at Goodreads.

Laura Swart is passionate about writing and teaching. She taught academic writing at the University of Calgary for twenty years, encouraging students to move their writing from the sterile walls of the classroom to the arenas of publication and exhibition. She is Founder and Director of I-AM, a faith-based ESL program that uses story and song to teach the intricacies of English to refugees. Laura’s degrees and research in Education and Philosophy have shaped her pedagogy, and the theories of Hans Gadamer in particular, have woven themselves into her thinking, her teaching, and her writing.