The Mask that Sang (2016), by Susan Currie

This review was first published in a shorter version in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 22.1.

The Mask that Sang (2016)

currie-mask-that-sang

The Mask that Sang opens with Cass running from bullies, only to come home to learn that her mother had been fired from her sketchy job at a diner for standing up for another girl against the bullying boss. While suggests a message about bullying being endemic, the story is really about how Cass discovers her Native heritage.

Cass’s mother, Denise, has “been in over twenty foster homes” since she was given up by her mother at birth (10); as teen mother herself, she chose not to make that decision, and has raised Cass in a loving emotional security that transcends their poverty. When her dead mother’s lawyers track Denise down, she is adamant that she will have nothing to do with the house and money she has been left. Cass, however, does not carry the same emotional baggage, and talks her mother into accepting the legacy: the home and financial security Cass has always dreamed of. Wrapped up in tissue in one of the drawers, calling to her with a “mischievous purr” was an Iroquios false-face mask. The mask is responsible for the soft voices Cass has been hearing: “The hum was more like a song now … Maybe it was a voice in the wind, maybe it was several voices” (22) telling her how happy she will be in the house, coaxing her towards the drawer to be discovered.

The mask sings to her; it hums in approval when she stands up for a Native classmate, Degan Hill; it “vibrated with regret, with sorrow” (56) when she inadvertently hurts him; it gives her strength to stand up for what she knows is right. Befriending Degan brings Cass into the lives of his Native family, where she learns the stories of false face masks, and their power. When her mother unknowingly sells it with other unwanted household items, Cass and Degan struggle to retrieve it, first from a pawn shop, then from its purchaser, and ultimately from the school bully, Ellis, who turns out (stereotypically) to be dealing with issues of his own.

Despite the trope of the privileged-yet-bullied bully, the ingenuity of Cass and Degan, and their strength in standing up to Ellis’s father racism and illogical position vis-à-vis the mask, gives readers a sense both of the powerlessness of the child against unreasonable adults and the need to stand for what you believe in regardless. In a rather simplistic and idealized dénouement, their strength gives the abused Ellis strength; he returns the mask to its rightful home, and “generations of voices sang that it was home at last” (185).

Its rightful home, of course, is with someone from the Cayuga Nation, where it was created. That the mask sings to Cass is the first obvious clue. The method of delivery of the truth of Cass’s heritage, rather like Denise’s fortuitous inheritance, is rather contrived. A letter that had been left to Denise—which she threw out but Cass rescued—tells the story of Denise’s mother, a Cayuga girl, neglected by her widowed father and sent to Residential school, who (like Denise) chose better for her infant daughter. The letter itself is little more than a narrative list of all possible injuries experienced by Native children in care of the government, and reads more like an outline from a history lesson than a letter from a caring nurse. After she gives up her baby, Denise’s mother “traveled in search of answers, working as she went … she visited other countries and sought out quiet, holy places. She learned to meditate. She studied about great religions, and explored what it felt like to practice them. When she finally came home, she was ready to look at her own traditions…” (174). This passage, especially, rang false for me. I could not reconcile the previous description of her treatment with the resources necessary for such travel and learning, “working as she went” notwithstanding.

What I find troubling is that the Turtle Island Healing Centre that Denise’s fictional mother founded does possibly exist. There is a Turtle Island Healing Center in Flagstaff, Arizona (although that seems an unlikely candidate), and Turtle Island Healing and Wellness, part of the Turtle Island Native Network online, is a Canadian organization. As “Turtle Island” is a term for the world in some First Nations’ creation myths (significantly, for this story, Iroquois), it is also possible that the author has created a generic title for a Native healing centre. If the story of Denise’s mother is based on the founder of the Canadian program, on the other hand, a more careful description of her past—and perhaps an afterword explaining the historical reality—would be greatly helpful. As it stands, the lecturing tone of the historical information overshadows the delightful story of Cass’s life, and we are left wanting.

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Missing Nimâmâ (2015), by Melanie Florence

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 21.3.

On 17 November 2016, Missing Nimâmâ was awarded theTD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, the highest honour (and greatest monetary award) available for writers of children’s literature in Canada.

The intended age group for the picture book was listed in the competition literature as 9-12, which differs from my earlier assumptions in writing this review.

Missing Nimâmâ

Illustrated by François Thisdale.

Florence - Missing“Once upon a time there was a little girl, a little butterfly, who flew to the telephone every time it rang, hoping against hope that her mother was coming home.”

Missing Nimâmâ is a truly beautiful book. I’m not sure, though, who the audience is. François Thisdale’s illustrations enhance this poignant story of a young Aboriginal mother torn from her family in an unexplained way, like so many Aboriginal women in Canada have been. Kateri’s mother is lost; Kateri is being raised by her nôhkom, her grandmother, while her mother’s spirit watches over her.

The story is told in both voices. We hear the spirit of the young mother as she watches her daughter grow to womanhood. We watch as Kateri tells her own story as she matures under the loving care of her grandmother. We never learn what happened to Kateri’s mother; Kateri is a young woman, married, and expecting her first child when the call comes that they have found her mother. What happened is not the issue, though, so much as the years of not knowing, of growing up without a mother, or missing a daughter, a sister, a wife – and having no answers. The depth of this ongoing tragedy is hauntingly portrayed through Florence’s poetic words and Thisdale’s evocative illustrations.

But to return to my earlier question: who is this book for? It is truly beautiful, but perhaps too powerful for young readers, even if presented through the filter of an adult reader. But who am I to say? I have not lost a mother; I have not needed this story. And it is a story that needs to be both told and heard.

A Blanket of Butterflies (2015), by Richard Van Camp and Scott B. Henderson

VanCamp - BlanketIt is embarrassing that I have not yet read Richard Van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed (1996), which is purportedly a true classic of modern Canadian young adult fiction. My guess is that reading his short graphic novel A Blanket of Butterflies does not absolve me of the obligation, which I promise to fulfill asap… A Blanket of Butterflies really does make me want to run out and read everything by Van Camp. Not usually a fan of graphic novels, I nonetheless found the pace of the novel, as well as the balance between text and image, to be particularly satisfying.

A Blanket of Butterflies is mostly wordless. Unlike many graphic novels, the pictures tell most of the story; only dialogue is otherwise provided, which brings natural visual focus onto the space. In life, we do not have a narrator telling us what we are seeing around us: we need to look. Van Camp and Henderson create this same interaction: we hear the (written) words, but we must look to see what the characters are responding to in their (illustrated) world.

The story is simple and poignant, the somewhat predicatable ending notwithstanding. It tells of an affinity between the Tlicho First Nation of Fort Smith, NWT, where Van Camp himself is from, and the Japanese. The affinity stretches across history; the peoples are the same, the text asserts, in that they have suffered similarly at the hands of European economic and military imperialism. The story is certainly not as heavy-handed as this suggests, but it does cause the reader to reflect on the history of European Canadian treatment of the northern First Nations as a parallel to the American bombing of Japan at the end of the Second World War. (It doesn’t get into Japanese atrocities committed during the war, but like many other narratives— Eleanor Coerr’s Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (1977); Joy Kogawa’s Obasan (1981) and the children’s version, Naomi’s Road (1986); Hayo Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s movie Grave of the Fireflies (1988)—tells the story of the lives of the Japanese people devastated by a war that their government waged. Like all wars, for all peoples: the suffering is not discriminate.)

The museum in Fort Smith had worked hard to locate a Japanese man, Shinobu, who is invited to reclaim a suit of armour belonging to his family, pilfered at some previous time. It is agreed by both that the armour belongs with its rightful owners, but the sword, beautifully crafted by Shinobu’s great-great-grandfather, has been bartered off by a previous museum custodian. The immediate story tells how young Sonny, with the help of his Ehtsi (grandmother) and her knowledge of the ways of the Tlicho, help Shinobu retrieve the sword from the unsavoury “Benny the Bank.” You can see here the scope for action-packed panels as well as images of great peace and healing. The balance in content, like that between narrative and image, satisfies graphic novel aficionados in its ability to engage.

The White Oneida (2014), by Jean Rae Baxter

Baxter - White O In her earlier young adult historical novels—The Way Lies North (2007), Broken Trail (2011), and Freedom Bound (2012), Jean Baxter explores the lives of the United Empire Loyalists, Native Americans, and African-American slaves during and shortly after the American Revolution. We follow the history of the Cobham family—among others—as they flee persecution in the United States, separated by the turmoil of the conflict. John Cobham and the eldest son, Elijah, left to fight for the British; the second son, Silas, later followed them; the youngest son, Moses, ran away and was found and adopted by an Oneida community; the only girl, Hope was a babe in arms as the family fell apart.

The White Oneida follows this exploration into the aftermath of political decisions made at the time, specifically those regarding the First Nations and land rights. The White Oneida is Moses Cobham, raised from the age of ten as Broken Trail. As the story opens, Broken Trail has been sent by Thayendanegea—known in history books as Joseph Brant—to Sedgewick School in Vermont, where promising young Native youths were being taught the White Man’s ways ostensibly to prepare them to “go forth to preach the Gospel in many tongues” (13). This, however, is neither Thayendanegea’s nor Broken Trail’s intent. Broken Trail is being educated explicitly to help forge alliances between the various First Nations, to gain a “gentleman’s education that will help prepare [him] to assist [Thayendanegea] in negotiations with white diplomats as well as with his plans to make a better future for native people” (5), and Broken Trail approaches his commission very earnestly.

In a twist on the Muscular Christianity “school novel” tradition, lacrosse plays a role in honing Broken Trail’s leadership abilities, but in the interest of promoting unity amongst the native peoples, not in the promulgation of Christian doctrine. This plot element draws also on historical allusion. The story, roughly told, is that at the outset of the Pontiac Rebellion of 1763, lacrosse functioned as a Trojan Horse: the First Nation warriors played lacrosse in the fields outside Fort Michilimackinac so often that the activity was considered harmless. When a ball was sent over the fort walls in a particular match between the Ojibwas and the Sauks, the British opened the door to return it; the natives surged through, decimating the fort. In The White Oneida, the metaphor of lacrosse as “the little brother of war” (49) functions on a deeper level. At Sedgewick School, the game, in traditional fashion, pits the Algonkian Shooting Stars (populated by students from the Mississaugas, Potawatomis, Ottawas, Shawnee, and Mohican nations) against the Six Nations Eagles (with students from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations: the the Oneida, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayugas, Onondaga, and Tuscarora). Recognizing the politically divisive nature of this recreational rivalry, Broken Trail asserts that he will only play if he plays for the Shooting Stars; he is supported by Lean Horse–Abraham, a Mohican who crosses the floor to the Eagles’ team (109). This is Broken Trail’s first success as a leader: despite initial opposition, not only the students but two of the teachers are converted to his position that “with mixed teams we’ll feel more like brothers than rivals … that’s what we need if we’re ever going to stand shoulder to shoulder to defend our lands” (111).

Broken Trail comes to Sedgewick School as a firm acolyte of Thayendanegea, but his hero-worship is disturbed by his teacher, half-Mohawk Mr. Johnson, whose opinion of Brant is less idealized. Thayendanegea, Mr. Johnson tells Broken Trail, means “places-two-bets”: a fitting name for Captain Joseph Brant, who “gambled to become a fine gentleman in the white man’s world and a war chief in ours. He won both bets” (67). Baxter - Haldimand TractIn 1784, Brant “won” for the Six Nations the Haldimand Tract: a grant of land stretching 6 miles either side of the Grand River for its entire length, 950 000 acres, give or take, in total. When Broken Trail comments that “the Haldimand Tract doesn’t belong to Captain Brant. It belongs to the people of the Six Nations,” Mr. Johnson derisively asks “Does Brant know that?” (67). Mr. Johnson further tells Broken Trail that Brant has been “selling off Six Nations land as if it were his own property” (139); it is historical fact that Brant did sell parts of the Haldimand Tract to white settlers. Later in the novel, Brant is given his own voice to respond to such accusations. Brant disillusions Broken Trail of his belief that the Haldimand Tract was granted to the Iroquois in recognition of their loyalty, explaining the military rationale behind the grant (220). He goes on to explain that the grant was “both too small and too large”: “too small for the Six Nations to live in the old way [but] more than what we require for farms. So why not sell land we don’t need in order to raise money for the things we do?” (221). By this point, we are willing to believe that Brant’s rationale is what he believes to be true, but it is to Baxter’s great credit that—like Broken Trail—we are not really sure that any of the versions we are given are actually truth.

In the context of the novel, the cynical Mr. Johnson has a valid perspective. This is another of the strengths of Baxter’s historicity: her fictional characters are constructed such that their knowledge and opinions are justified and believable. Brant, as a historical figure carries his own credibility, but the fictional characters seem equally “real.” Mr. Johnson, for example, is presented as “one of Sir William Johnson’s sons” (27) from his union with Molly Brant, Joseph Brant’s sister. The Dictionary of National Biography verifies Baxter’s information about the Johnson family, should a reader choose to check. They likely wouldn’t: so much of Baxter’s information reads as historical truth.

(An interesting tangential note is that Canadian poet-performer, E. Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), who adopted her great-grandfather’s native name of “Tekahionwake,” or “Double-Wampum,” was descended from Sir William. Twice widowed, in 1759 Sir William “married” Molly Brant, who bored him eight children. Johnson had 3 children by his first wife, Mary Wisenburgh, and an unspecified number by his second long-term liaison with a Dutch woman whom he married on her death-bed—hence Broken Trail’s classmate’s comment about Johnson making “good provision for all his children, whether their mothers were native or white” (27). In his will, Johnson calls Molly’s children his “natural children” (see Dictionary of National Biography entry, below). Broken Trail’s fictional teacher, Mr. Johnson, was one of these children, as was E. Pauline Johnson’s entirely non-fictional great-grandfather, Jacob George “Tekahionwake” Johnson.)

It is not the well-constructed plot of The White Oneida that renders it such a successful historical novel so much as the weaving together of the threads of political machinations surrounding the history of the Iroquois nations in Canada and the creation of the Six Nations Reserve in what is now Brant County. The objective history of negotiations and decisions is complex; through Broken Trail’s growing insight and ethical interpretations of what he learns, readers can begin to understand the motivations driving those decisions. More politically aware than Broken Trail, Margaret–Yellowbird tells him that she “doesn’t trust” the American tolerance of the Oneida rebuilding the villages destroyed in the Revolution: “Whenever they seem to be treating us better, they’re just softening us up so they can take more of our land. I think their plan is to push us into little reservations surrounded by white settlements, so each band will be cut off from the rest. That way, we’ll lose our power to act as a single nation” (43). This concern underlies Brant’s intent in sending Broken Trail to Sedgewick School. Broken Trail begins his educational journey believing that Brant’s vision is right, his motivations pure and just. As we leave him, we see that Broken Trail’s belief in the vision is just as strong, but he has a far more balanced and realistic view of the complexities of and contradictions in Brant’s—and others’—attitudes and actions. He has seen that too often “the bannock was buttered and spread with strawberry jam” (223), and he moves ever forward in his desire to negotiate the disparate yet entangled worlds he inhabits.

 

Sir Leslie Stephen, ed., Dictionary of National Biography, 1921–1922. Volumes 1–20, 22 (London, England: Oxford UP, 1921-1922) p. 939:

Baxter - William Johnson DNB