Classed as ‘stories’ on the cover, I began reading Dawn Dumont’s Glass Beads in tiny slivers, a page here, an opening paragraph there, trying to find a story that hooked me, a place to begin since for some reason I didn’t choose to begin at the beginning. The truth is I almost stopped reading because these little snippets of things weren’t grabbing me. All I gleaned was that each story was about very young people and various kinds of young people angst.
But something about Dumont’s writing style kept me reading… just one more snippet, and then another. The rawness of the characters (they felt like people I knew, maybe in some cases people I once was), the way she captures voice and her superb handling of dialogue (which soon begins to feel less like reading and more like eavesdropping), all of it coming across so true… and before I know it I’m flipping to the beginning of the book and starting again from there.
In a nutshell: the stories follow four friends over the course of fifteen years, through the angst of teenhood to the angst of young adulthood.
So what makes it special?
Dumont’s writing. It’s as simple as that.
Also, she taps into a universal feeling right off the bat in the opening story, “Kokum’s House”… with a line about how if you’re told something often enough, no matter how sad….“tears don’t come after a while.”.
The tone of the book is….. let me tell you a story about people.
That the characters are indigenous isn’t incidental.
Not for one moment do we forget these are Native kids growing into Native adulthood and that there are issues, events and problems that are specific to them and to no other culture (starlight tours). But neither do we forget for a single moment that there are issues, events and problems these characters experience that are universal (the floundering of youth, drugs, alcohol and parties), and it’s the way she blends things that gives the book its power.
Dumont has written what might be one of the hardest stories to write, one that features a specific culture (it could as easily be a specific race or religion, a sexual orientation… anything that isn’t WASP and cis-gendered) without shining a light on that ‘difference’ or making the difference the story.
It’s not about being indigenous any more than a story with white characters is a story about whiteness.
It’s about Nellie who is level-headed and wise and not especially the popular one, the one who “… had never worked as a waitress but she had delivered beers to her dad in the big chair.” And Everett, who womanizes and drinks too much and to whom she’s emotionally drawn.
It’s about Julie, whose attractiveness is part of the reason she succeeds and part of the reason she fails.
“What other people wanted came naturally to Julie and they weren’t complimenting her so much as expressing their desire to have it.”
It’s about these indigenous kids looking at Cosmo and Chatelaine, reading about diets and fung shui, just like everyone else.
It’s about Taz who strives to climb the ladder of Native politics and lands a job with the federal government, in land claims. He calls himself a hired gun. “I come in and bury the Natives in paperwork.” He says it pays well but a comment puts it into perspective. “Enjoy that blood money.”
It’s about what works and doesn’t work on reserves. The band that neglects to send tuition, resulting in a student being unable to register for college.
It’s about how there’s a perception that being in the city will be different than being on the reserve, “… he won’t drink in the city because being away from the reserve will allow him to make connections… he would be building things, not tearing them apart. Crow’s Nest was behind him along with all of his sad eyed friends and their growing guts and whining that the chief and council sucked but never doing anything about it.”
And it’s about reality.
“But the people in the city turned out to be exactly like the people on the rez. There was always another party, another reason to turn it up.”
Dumont doesn’t put a glossy sheen on anything. She admits there are problems on reservations, with Native governments, people with all kinds of differing views. There isn’t one Native Culture. But neither does she shy away from softness. The sense of community is strong and comes through.
Toward the end of the book, when the characters are young adults, a more adult focus on what’s happening within communities comes to light. In one scene, men just shooting the shit, eating Chinese food, the tone becomes serious when talk centres around how the Assembly of Chiefs has lost connection to what’s important.
“I see that our people are getting arrested, locked up, committing violence or getting dumped by the side of the road – I see the young kids on the streets wandering – where are their parents? Why aren’t they at home? – like how I was at home at their age, doing my homework, watching TV with my family… that’s where kids should be… because pretty soon they’re not kids anymore, they’re adults and then we’ve lost them.”
Native youth…. youth is what’s important.
“That’s what those fuckers should be focusing on.”
The title, Glass Beads, doesn’t have a corresponding story, leaving me to wonder what the reference is. My interpretation is the idea of trading… what we trade, what anyone trades, for what they hope will be a good life.
And how we forge ahead when that trade turns out not be an entirely a fair deal.
While the stories are stand alone quality, they’re so much more when standing together. For that reason I prefer to think of the book as a novel.
And I would absolutely recommend starting at the beginning.
Glass Beads is available at Hunter Street Books and Blue Heron Books.
Support indies! (These are two of my faves.)
Thanks to one of the comments I picked up a copy of Nobody Cries at Bingo, and not only loved it, I think it ought to be essential *Canada150* reading. What a brilliant way she has of presenting modern indigenous life so that it feels simply like life, no labels, yet we feel the difference. Such subtleness, and that humour….
“Auntie and Mom looked at one another and shook their heads. What had happened to kids these days? Back in their day, a kid was lucky to get to go anywhere. Growing up in a family of twelve, you were lucky if your mom remembered your face, never mind took you to bingo. And if you did want to go to bingo, it wasn’t just a quick five-minute drive, it was a two-day journey involving a horse, a wagon and three portages. Now those were days when people appreciated bingo…”