this is not a review: ‘and the birds rained down’, by jocelyne saucier


I haven’t the foggiest as to why fat books are so popular. Is it because there’s more to wade around in, that the reading will last longer? A double cheeseburger vs a cup of soup?

Yes, but,  I say.

Skinny books, being pared down to their sweet essence, have a tendency to stay with you long after the yummy saga of a fat book has slid into the oblivion of a happy gamorph. (After which you’re hit with the craving for another fat book.) A skinny book, on the other hand, often begs to be read again. And the re-reading gets sweeter (and more nourishing) every time.

And the Birds Rained Down is a skinny book of the most delicious kind, one of five Canada Reads selections, for which I am truly grateful.andthebirdsraineddown-220

I’ll be honest though. It took me few beats to relax into it and I wondered why this was… because I liked the story. Then it occurred to me: I was reading at the wrong speed; I was looking for something rather than letting the something contained within the pages find  me.

Also, the ‘something contained’ wasn’t what I thought. So I’d never have found it by looking.

For instance, what it’s NOT about is a few feisty and elderly men who have chosen to live in the woods where they rely on their wits and each other and occasional supplies from town courtesy of a couple of pot growers. Neither is it about the two women who arrive, one a photographer, working on a project about survivors of an infamous fire; the other, a former inmate of a lunatic asylum.

Neither is it about a small Northern Ontario community that was devastated by fire, or the way the fire’s effect has touched various unconnected people in the decades since.

It’s not about dogs named Drink and Chummey, or a cat named Monseigneur.

And it’s certainly not about the worry of death, though it’s mentioned a lot and figures prominently. And, well, there is  strychnine.

It is… however, about dignity. How we see people, how we expect or allow them to live. How we can choose to help or hinder or judge. It’s about the kind of communities we want and the kind we build. (A roadside hotel—a rather old and often overlooked shell of a place with an interesting past that still serves a real purpose to those with an appreciation for authenticity—offers a powerful metaphor for aging.)

“I like places that have given up any pretence of stylishness, any affectation, and that cling to an idea waiting for time to prove them right: prosperity, the railroad, old friends… I’m not sure what they’re waiting for. The region has a number of these sorts of places that stand the test of time as they revel in their own dilapidated solitude.”

It’s about respect for generations that have lived lives we can’t possibly understand; it’s about breaking down age barriers.

“The eyes are what are most important in old people. The flesh is hanging, sagging, gathered in wrinkled knots around the mouth, eyes, nose and ears. The face is ravaged, illegible. You can’t know anything about an old person unless you look into their eyes—their eyes tell the story of their lives.”

It’s about friendship and the surprising places it’s found. In one case, in an asylum where one inmate (who had her own baby taken from her) helped another mourn the loss of her child.

“I rocked her baby. That’s how we became friends. I asked if I could rock her baby. She passed him to me very carefully and I took him just as carefully, and I rocked the baby too, for a long time, singing songs to him. And that’s how, taking turns rocking a baby that didn’t exist, we figured out how not to be where we were.”

It is about love and sex in old age and the latter not working quite as it used to. Never mind. There are other ways. Saucier doesn’t shy away from this subject but treats it with exactly the right amount of ‘natural’. We might ask ourselves why this isn’t talked about more… is it just so terribly shocking to know that the elderly feel passion?

It’s about creativity.

The way these men have built their lives, and an unknown stash of paintings in which more is revealed about the artist than ever could be shared in friendship.

And, yes, it’s about death. Not in any maudlin or sentimental way but in the way it’s connected to both life and independence and the choices we make. Not only how we live, but how we die…

“Too many deaths,… Too many bodies, too much black coiled at the bottom of his paintings, never any light, or, if there is any, it’s to illuminate blacked bodies, cries of horror, hands out stretched where death surprised them. No one can live with that deep within. Ted tried to free himself from it, to hurl all of that horror onto the canvas. Maybe he succeeded in a sense. His final painting, the one on his easel, had light—very little a faint glimmer, but enough to created a space from which he could slip away gently. That’s what I hope for him, it’s what I hope for all of us. To slip away gently.”

It’s a book that celebrates the realities of life in its not always perfect perfection. And it does so quite perfectly.

All that in 155 pages.

And the Birds Rained Down, available online at Blue Heron Books.



this is not a review: indian horse by richard wagamese


I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I began reading Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse . Everyone seems to be talking about it, I’d seen reviews, it’s a Canada Reads contender. I knew there was hockey. I’d heard the descriptions: ‘powerful’, ‘stunning’, ‘heartbreaking’. But I hadn’t heard the details.

Now I understand why.

The details are hard to talk about, hard to accept. Harder still to read but impossible to stop reading.

The in-a-nutshell version is this: An Ojibway man who is a mess due to a family history of residential schools, booze and unemployment, ends up in rehab after almost making it to the NHL.

If you think you’ve heard the story before, believe me, you haven’t. Not like this.

The book opens with images of life before the white man, before indigenous peoples were made to accept a pittance for the job of helping the government devastate their own land, before they beganindianhorse trading berries for bottles.

It soon moves ahead a few generations with the focus on Saul Indian Horse’s childhood and family: a nurturing grandmother; a father who’s fine when he’s working but work for Indians is rare; a mother who is already a wreck from her own years at residential school and is now forced to watch as her children are taken to the same place, one at gunpoint.

Saul himself ends up at the school—where, among other atrocities, children die standing up, bodies hang from rafters, wrists are slashed on bathroom floors and a young girl fills her pockets with stones and calmly walks into the creek to drown. Where another child, already dead inside, speaks matter-of-factly about the priest and the nuns coming to her in the night to share “god’s love”.

“They called it a school, but it was never that….There were no tests or examinations. The only test was our ability to survive.”

Despite the horrors there is not a trace of rancour in the writing, not one gratuitous scene to drive home a point. Quite the opposite in fact. Wagamese wields a strong but subtle hand on the subject, the power being in what’s left unsaid. One gets the terrible idea that what Saul knows, what any of us know, is merely the tip of the iceberg.

How Wagamese kept what must be his own deeply rooted feelings out of the story, focussing only on Saul, telling The Bigger Story through him… is a feat not many writers manage, much less manage so beautifully.

“When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals are pronounced backward, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human. That is hell on earth, that sense of unworthiness.”

Escape for Saul comes in the form of hockey—and these are some of the most beautiful passages in the book. While I can watch a game and be soothed by the sound of skates on ice, puck meeting wood—even though I really know very little about what’s going on—I didn’t think I’d like reading about hockey and it was one of the reasons I initially hesitated picking up the book. Turns out reading about hockey the way Wagamese writes it is an utter joy, even for someone who doesn’t know a crease from a blue line. The passion and lyricism of those chapters could easily be applied to a description of any artist or athlete doing what they love.

Saul has the talent of a Gretzky or a Crosbie and he moves quickly up the ranks, becomes a local hero where ‘hockey brings unity to a fractured society’ and “Every reserve in the North had a team.” But the system has him move up even higher, to minor leagues, to big city games in the south where an Indian on skates is an event, a cause for racist headlines, jeering and jokes.

“During one game [the fans] broke into a ridiculous war chant whenever I stepped onto the ice…. When I scored, the ice was littered with plastic Indian dolls… A cartoon in one of the papers showed me in a hockey helmet festooned with eagle feathers, holding a war lance instead of a hockey stick.”

What once was his salvation proves to be just another thing that belongs to the white man. Hockey is metaphor for the “white man’s game”… the game of life. They expect him to play the role of savage Indian, and eventually, fueled by a lifetime of suppressed rage, and against his better instincts, he obliges them.

From there he spirals down until he’s at the New Dawn Rehab Centre where he discovers perhaps the most difficult layer of his past [a shocker I did not see coming…] and begins the long process of healing.

This is the part of the book that was hardest to take. We white folk in Canada pride ourselves on our multiculturalism, our supposedly easy acceptance of all races. But we don’t talk about the aboriginal population when we talk about race and racism. We don’t talk about the aboriginal population at all. Because, well, they live “up there somewhere” and very little that happens to them is reported in mainstream media, and even when it is, it’s a news blip not a serious problem. Contaminated water in Walkerton? A very big deal. Heads rolled. In Attawapiskat? Where’s that?

Ditto mould, insufficient housing, suicide.

But it’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we don’t know.

The Idle No More Movement has shown, at least to some degree, that there are large numbers of us, people of all description, that do care. And we crave information. Yes, we can ferret it out online, but perhaps the day has come where equal air time and ink in mainstream media is given to aboriginal issues.

The long and short of it is this: we know too little about the history of native communities. For this reason books like Indian Horse are important in that they convey a hard story that needs not only to be told to heal the teller—but heard, to help heal our world.

Indian Horse  is available for purchase on-line at Blue Heron Books. 

And Hunter Street Books.

Support indies!

a league of nomads

“We were hockey gypsies, heading down another gravel road every weekend, plowing into the heart of that magnificent northern landscape. We never gave a thought to being deprived as we travelled, to being shut out of the regular league system. We never gave a thought to being Indian. Different. We only thought of the game and the brotherhood that bound us together off the ice, in the van, on the plank floors of reservation houses, in the truck stop diners where if we’d won we had a little to splurge on a burger and soup before we hit the road again. Small joys. All of them tied together, entwined to form an experience we would not have traded for any other. We were a league of nomads, mad for the game, mad for the road, mad for ice and snow, an Arctic wind on our faces and a frozen puck on the blade of our sticks.”

~ from Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese