The first time I heard Joseph Kakwinokanasum read, I knew I was hearing the voice of a born storyteller. All of us in the room where the open mic was being held were under the spell of his words.
This spring he was selected by the Writers’ Trust as one of Canada’s Rising Stars, a talent to watch, so that’s what I’ve been doing: reading his new book.
His first novel (and I know there are more to come), My Indian Summer, is a coming-of-age book, an account that sounds based in truth, and tells of a season that proved to be a turning point in a young man’s life. The year is 1979, the last days of August, turning into September – for many, one of the loveliest times of the year.
The main character, twelve-year-old Hunter, referred to by his mother as a “half-breed,” has two close friends – Jacob, who’s Cree and Eric, who’s white. This not-exactly-holy trinity of pals share many a secret, including a get-rich-quick scheme that proves to be extremely dangerous for all of them. But before we can get to that, a little more background.
Serving as almost a parallel trio, perhaps a cautionary one, is another set of contrasting characters – three adults – Troy, Pete, and Crow. One is bad, one is too paranoid to be sure of being good or bad, and the other (after a bout in prison) has turned the corner on being bad and gone on to a life of being good, living on the land.
And still another threesome is important to the story, both structurally and plot-wise: Hunter’s three kohkums (Gladys, Maude and Donna) who love him, guide him, and often feed and protect him.
Hunter’s home life is wretched. His older sister leaves home as soon as she’s made enough money to escape the town of Red Rock; she advises Turner to save up and do the same as soon as he can. Their mother, Margarette, is cruel, mostly due to her heavy drinking. Her circumstance is complicated by the fact of her own tragic past but doesn’t excuse the fact that she frequently abandons her son to go off on binges. When she returns, Hunter often finds himself on the blunt end of one of her beatings. And if the beating isn’t from her, it’s from Noah, Hunter’s older brother.
The time Hunter spends with his friends is special. There’s an episode where the three boys go for an overnight campout in the bush. It’s very reminiscent of the Stephen King story that was adapted to become the film, “Stand by Me.” I could practically hear the theme song from “Have Gun, Will Travel” as the boys trekked to the special spot where they planned to spend the night.
Hunter also spends time on his own in the forest, catching rabbits and other small game. He sells what he catches to the kohkums, but that’s not his only money-making scheme. Collecting bottles and cashing them in is another – at least that’s a safe enterprise, as there’s another, much more precarious one yet to come.
While there were parts of the novel that moved more slowly than others (or maybe they’re just, as Crow explains things, moving on “Indian time”), other sections pull you right along, not only with what they’re saying but how they say it, as in this section, so exemplary of the rhythms and descriptions the book is imbued with:
He mounted his bike. The seat was hot through his denim shorts, the grips of his handlebars soft and squishy. He pushed off, stood on the pedals and rode away from MacDonald’s. In his mind, he counted off what needed doing to the time of his pedalling feet: Back home. Get meat. Get pelts. Bring grouse. Take to kohkums. Back home. Call the boys. It was like work. It was a job and that’s the way Hunter played it.
This is a story of intergenerational pain, brought on by details of the history we keep learning about – history that’s left such a terrible legacy. It’s a story that’s believable as being based in personal experience, as the author is from James Smith Cree Reserve, a place that was recently too prominent in Canadian news. But even more importantly, the novel is a story of resilience, and one that’s bound to linger in mind.
About the Author
Of Cree and Austrian descent, Joseph Kakwinokanasum grew up in the Peace region of northern BC, one of seven children raised by a single mother. A graduate of SFU’s Writers Studio, his short story “Ray Says” was a finalist for CBC’s 2020 Nonfiction Prize. In 2022, he was selected by Darrel J. McLeod as one of the Writers Trust of Canada’s “Rising Stars.” He now lives and writes in BC’s Lower Mainland. Loosely based on his own childhood, My Indian Summer is his first novel.
- Publisher : Tidewater Press (Sept. 27 2022)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 240 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1990160123
- ISBN-13 : 978-1990160127
Heidi Greco lives and writes in Surrey, BC on the territory of the Semiahmoo Nation and land that remembers the now-extinct Nicomekl People. Her most recent book, Glorious Birds (from Vancouver's Anvil Press) is an extended homage to one of her favourite films, Harold and Maude, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021. More info at her website, heidigreco.ca
(Photo credit: George Omorean)