[identity profile] ms-mmelissa.livejournal.com
Through Black Spruce was the 2008 winner of the Giller award (Canada's top literary prize for those not in the know). I've only read a handful of the winners and nominees over the years, but Through Black Spruce easily tops my list as my favourite of those I've read.

In Moosonee, Ontario a middle aged man lies in a coma. His name is Will Bird and over the course of the novel he narrates the events of the past year of his life, slowly building up to the event that led to his coma. While he is in a coma his niece Annie Bird talks to him, telling him about the past year of her life, when she left the town she had lived in all her life in order to travel to Toronto, Montreal and New York in an attempt to track down her missing model sister Suzanne who ran off two years ago with her drug-dealing boyfriend Gus.

The novel alternates between Will and Annie's voices and it's a testament to Boyden's strength as a writer that each story is equally compelling. There was no sense of disappointment when a new chapter began and Will's story ended and Annie's story continued or vice versa. The missing Suzanne is also a compelling character, her abscence spurring on Annie's quest and having devastating consequences for Will. Suzanne is what weaves these two stories together despite the fact that we never "see" her within the novel.

There is also a lot of detail about Cree life and what it means to keep the traditions alive in an increasingly modern world. Will and especially Annie represent a bridge between traditional Cree culture and Western culture. Boyden is able to eloquently capture the negotiation between modern and traditional and the compromises that his characters must make in order to feel comfortable within themselves are woven elegantly into the story. 

FYI: Boyden wrote this as a loose sequel to his first novel Three Day Road (Will is the son of the main character of Three Day Road) and has announced that he intends to write a third book to form a trilogy.
sanguinity: woodcut by M.C. Escher, "Snakes" (Default)
[personal profile] sanguinity
10. Matt Dembicki (ed.), Trickster: Native American Tales, A Graphic Collection.

Diverse collection of trickster tales from people indigenous to various territories of the U.S. (including Alaska and Hawaii, which is why I'm using that phraseology instead of "Native American"). All story texts are from indigenous storytellers, while most of the illustrators are non-Native; the collection editor is white. (I haven't checked to see how many of the non-Native illustrators are POC.)

Full list of contributors )

I'm including the editor's note in full, because I think it highlights both some of the problems and strengths of the collection.

'I was casually thumbing through books at our local library...' )

On the one hand, that editor's note contains a good chunk of earnest cluelessness and several things that make my face go squinchy, up to and including speaking of Native cultures as one homogenous, long-ago thing, and framing the reader as part of a non-Native "us". On the other hand, Dembicki made sure to find Native storytellers, and likewise understood that there have been issues in the putting together of these kinds of collections, and that the editorial process should thus give the Native writers as much power as possible during illustration and editing.

The collection's strengths center on its nice range of stories: trickster as hero, antihero, and villain; stories with humor and without; stories with morals and without; use of formal English to colloquial English to song to Englishes strongly influenced by Native languages (or so I presume). Overall, this collection is a nice sampler of the kinds of things that a "trickster story" can be, and it demonstrates that the practice of "trickster story" is much wider than the smattering of prettified Coyote stories that have entered mainstream children's books. (Speaking of which, I did notice there were no raunchy trickster stories here -- no one should trust me to vet books for age-appropriateness, but this appears to be a deliberately "child-safe" collection.) Happily, there was no editorial smoothing in this collection: language, purpose, and even the idea of "trickster" vary wildly from one story to the next. Not all of these stories even fit smoothly into mainstream expectations of how a story should progress or be told. Speaking personally, it is very nice to see that.

However, the collection's weaknesses trace back to some of the things that bothered me in the editor's note. Almost every story appears without context: no strong sense of who it would be told to, nor when, nor why, nor what body of stories it is a part of. I had to keep flipping to the contributor list in the back to find out which people the storyteller was a member of, or where a story likely took place. That each of these stories belonged somewhere was largely missing: most of these stories drift unattached, as if they were not part of the coherent specificities that are called Ojibwe, Choctaw, or Diné.

Also, I am not entirely sure that the writer <-> illustrator process worked as well as it might. Elaine Grinnell's "The Wolf and The Mink," which is told in a hyperbolic style ("The hair on the top of [Mink's] hair parted, he was running so fast!") is illustrated with all the realist earnestness of a Mark Trail strip. (And why, why, is Mink waiting on the outside of a stream bend to try to catch a fish cutting the corner??) Jerry Carr's cartoonish style make the story-appropriate Plains dress in "Trickster and the Great Chief" read like a retread of the Looney Tunes Indian stereotype. The history of the use of Plains imagery in cartooning is nasty and vicious, and in a collection like this, it requires some careful thought to sidestep: in my opinion, "The Bear Who Stole Chinook" succeeded, while "When Coyote Decided to Get Married" and "Trickster and the Great Chief" did not.

However, there are yet storyteller and illustrator pairings that worked very well. Micah Farritor did a beautiful job communicating the peoplehood of animals in "Coyote and the Pebbles", while Rabbit's audacious smooth-talking charm sang out in Mike Short's illustrations for "Giddy Up, Wolfie". The contributions of Roy Doney Jr., one of the two Native illustrators in the collection, stood out even before I went back to the contributor list -- his Horned Toad Lady has a centeredness to her demeanor that not even Coyote can disrupt. Dimi Micheras, the other Native illustrator, has Ishjinki, in his moment of triumph, wearing Buzzard like a fancy dancer's bustle! (Oh, poor Buzzard!)

On a purely personal level (as if the reactions above were objective!), it was nice to see such a strong inclusion of Northwest stories, yay! And I had long heard that B'rer Rabbit stories share heritage with Rabbit stories from the Southeast, but it was a pleasure to finally get to read some Creek and Choctaw Rabbit stories, and to find B'rer Rabbit's shenanigans so instantly recognizable.

11. Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga.

A Haida epic about a leader, and his quest for revenge on the raiders who stole his sister -- his only family -- when they were children. I've seen comparisons to King Lear or Oedipus Rex: Red is a grand, careening-toward-doom tragedy, in the classical sense of the word. But neither of those two other stories contain a submarine fashioned in the shape of an orca, which makes Red clearly superior to both. ;-)

I could talk more about the story, but I must discuss the art. I'm not familiar enough with manga to know why this is being called a manga -- others can likely speak better to that than I. (And from interviews I've read, I suspect there are some political aspects to that, on the artist's part, rather than straight-up genre delineations?) All I can say on the genre matter is that the art style is distinctly Haida, with the story itself laid out in a sequential-art format.

What is striking about that sequential artwork, however, is the story's interactions with the panel borders. Characters and action are squeezed, stretched, and distorted by the swooping panel lines. On some pages, the characters in turn seize the panel boundaries to fight or distort them. There is some seriously cool shit going on with the panel boundaries -- and I say that even though I sometimes struggled to discover how a page should be read. This is no mere gimmick: there is a grander, sweeping shape to this story, one that the characters strive within and against even as they strive against each other.

And of course, if you've read any of the press for the book, then you know that the book is designed to be dismantled and reassembled into a mural (you'll need two copies of the book to do so, because the pages are printed on both sides). The grand, sweeping shape to this story is literal, not metaphorical. For those who can't abide destroying their copies (although from what I hear, we all are great disappointments to the artist! ) the inside of the dust jacket shows the final composite image. However, even blown up as large as the dust jacket can accommodate, it is still very small -- that mural should really be seen at proper size, I suspect.

For more about the art -- plus sample shots of it -- this is one of the better reviews and discussions that I've seen.

I strongly recommend this to people who are interested in the boundaries and possibilities of sequential art, or to people who are interested in Native artists stretching, and ultimately inviting you to destroy, the notion of a book. Or, yanno, I also recommend it to people who simply want to read an epic Haida tragedy. Although I do warn those of you who just want to read a nice story: the art is not a tame and well-behaved illustration of the story -- as a reader, I don't think it's possible to simply read this, and not engage with the art, for good or for ill.

...and did I mention the orca submarine? There is an orca submarine. :-D

(Additional tags: nationality: canadian, nationality: united states, graphic novels, indigenous peoples, Haida)


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