Archive for October, 2008

These are comments from both Canadian and American reviews of the novel by Carol Matas and me, The Proof that Ghosts Exist, the first book of the Ghosthunters trilogy.

Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books:

As this is the first novel in a planned trilogy, there is little resolution offered as to the likelihood of their success (though the lighthearted tone certainly does not suggest the imminent death of their father). However, compelling side characters (particularly the mysterious Reggie, the giant and ominous nurse who literally appears on scene after the sibs’father is injured), endearing and intrepid protagonists, and a mystery complex enough to sustain interest across volumes will all easily draw readers back in to see what happens next.

the booksforchildren wiki:

There’s scary fun here. Molly and Adam must face their fears, and there’s some amusing play with ghost story conventions. 

Lessons from the Tortoise:

This is a funny, imaginative excursion into the world of ghost-hunting–highly recommended for middle-grade readers.

North Bay Nugget, October 25,2008:

The Proof that Ghosts Exist by Carol Matas and Perry Nodelman (Key Porter, ages nine to 14) is a rip-roaring ghost story filled with chills, thrills and more than a few laughs. Maybe it’s just a horrible coincidence that the Barnett men tend to drop dead the day before their 35th birthday. But Molly and Adam’s mom isn’t taking any chances. She has decided to spend their dad’s birthday at their remote — and safe — cottage by the lake. What could go wrong? As Molly and Adam find out — everything! The kids struggle to make sense of the odd events and figure out what’s really happening at the lake. This is the first volume in the Ghosthunters trilogy and will leave readers eagerly awaiting the next installment in this Canadian story.

CM Magazine:

Ghosts that kill provides the spook-a-riffic basis for the mystery that Adam and his sister Molly try to solve in The Proof that Ghosts Exist by Carol Matas and Perry Nodelman. This is the exciting first book in “The Ghosthunters” trilogy, and so, although some mysteries are solved, the book leaves the reader with many unanswered questions. The author duo begin the story on the premise of a family curse and then continue to mix in more mysterious elements to keep readers guessing and build the suspense. The Proof that Ghosts Exist is both an entertaining, light read and a thought-provoking story about the supernatural world. . . .

The success of this novel is in the way Nodelman and Matas tease the reader with questions of who is evil, what is evil, how do you fight or stand up to an evil that knows all of your weaknesses? Adam and Molly’s love for their dad keeps them motivated to face their fears, although, at the moment, they can only trust their instinct and the words of their grandfather. A gentle humour takes the edge away from the suspense. Simply put, The Proof that Ghosts Exist is a fun book to read from start to finish.

Nodelman and Matas effortlessly weave mystery, suspense and humour throughout the novel. As they prove that ghosts exits, the writing duo raises of number of fun and frightening questions about the supernatural world and the connection of the living to it. The Proof that Ghosts Exist is a light read that is truly “filled with chills thrills and more than a few laughs.” Highly Recommended.

The Jewish Independent, April 18, 2008:

Another story that requires readers to check their skepticism at the door is The Proof that Ghosts Exist (Key Porter Books) by Carol Matas and Perry Nodelman, but it’s wonderfully written and very entertaining – even a bit scary at times.
Molly and Adam Barnett’s family is reaching a potentially dangerous milestone: their father’s 35th birthday. For generations, Barnett men have died on the day before they turned 35. To try and avoid this tragedy in their own family, the Barnetts head to their remote cottage, where they will be away from the stresses and dangers of the city and where the children – without mom, who has to stay in town to deal with important business – can keep a close eye on their dad.
Of course, nothing is as easy as it seems and Molly and Adam have to piece together the mystery that plagues their family, all the while dealing with ghosts and more tangible threats to their and their father’s lives.
The Proof that Ghosts Exist is the first book in the Ghosthunters trilogy so, of course, it leaves readers in the lurch. But anticipation is half the fun, right?

Saskatoon Star Phoenix, May 17, 2008

Carol Matas and Perry Nodelman’s collaborative junior fiction novel The Proof that Ghosts Exist (Key Porter, paperback, $11.95), first in The Ghosthunters trilogy, is certainly well-suited for ages nine-12. Reminiscent of the glib Goosebumps novels for the same age group, Matas and Nodelman’s title operates on a premise similar to one used by British author Alan Gibbons in a book for older readers, Scared to Death: that a particular force of evil is capable of bringing on whatever it is that frightens people the most.

For Molly, it’s the sensation that she’s trapped in a small, close space. For her younger brother Adam, it’s creepy crawly things. For their father, Tim, who lives under the shadow of an approaching thirty-fifth birthday and the knowledge that both his father, and grandfather, died on their thirty-fifth birthdays, it’s his wife!

Humorous passages, including segments about an odd lakeside neighbour named Reggie who initially appears to nurse Tim’s strained ankle, keep this a light read for kids who like to be scared — but not too much.

Bookloons:

The Proof that Ghosts Exist, first in a series, offers a historical mystery, adventure interspersed with sibling banter, and a strong dose of the supernatural.

And, of course, there’s the infamous and very creepy book trailer:

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Frost, Helen.  The Braid.  New York: Frances Foster/Farrar, Straus, 2006.

The book consists of a series of “poems”–or, I guess, would-be poems, for I fail to see much in the way of what I would personally consider poetry in them.  The language isn’t terribly distinguished or even all that interesting in and for itself (i.e., as separate from what it describes–and it certainly doesn’t give me the sense that what it describes is worth hearing about because of the way the language captures it), and there’s no intensity of perception, no sense of something specifically caught and understood by means of a very specific choice of words.  It’s basically just the narratives of two girls alternating with each other) as they describe and respond to their experiences, in poems with lines so long that they almost fill the page as much as a block of prose would–and they have no obvious rhythmic patterning, etc., so it’s hard to understand how exactly it is they’re not prose.

That’s where the author’s “notes on form” become relevant.  she explains that “The last words of each line in one narrative poem are the first words in each line in the following narrative poem, sometimes in a slightly different form.” Meanwhile, between the narrative poems are what she calls “praise poems,” shorter ones that look more like conventional lyric poems of our time, (and I have to say, rather tiredly conventional ones in both imagery and sentiment) “each of which praises something named in the narrative poems,” and “The last line of one praise poem is braided into the first line of the next praise poem.” So there’s a lot of complex organizing going on here, and I suppose I ought to be thinking about Yeats saying,

A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

And I would, if I thought the end result worked.  But it doesn’t in fact seem a moment’s thought, but instead rather laboured–and weirdly, in the endnotes, calling attention to its organizational principles in a way that does for me make the stitching and unstitching naught.  It’s like a giant Lego model of a roller coaster, the kind you look at at wonder at all the effort that went into it and yet you can’t actually take a ride on it.  It’s just intricate organization for its own sake (although here it does claim a purpose, although for me not persuasively–more about that later).  In being fussily over-contrived, though, and once I’ve had my attention drawn to the contrivance, I find it distracts attention from whatever there is of a story.

The story is about a Scottish family in 1850, who emigrate to Cape Breton in Canada after being forced off their land.  But one sister can’t bear to leave and stays behind, and so we have the two separated and thinking across the miles of each other, connected only by the braid of their intertwined hair each has half of.   The text itself is clearly then an attempt to weave a similar braid, in that it makes connections between events in the lives of each of the sisters that the other knows nothing about.  It is, in other words, an artificial contrivance that is supposed to reveal a connection between the two sisters despite distance–a connection they don’t and can’t actually have anymore.  And the extent to which it remains a contrivance implies the extent to which the book tries but fails to be upbeat about the situation of these girls forever apart from each other.  Despite physical distance, despite all the evidence, they are still, the book insists, somehow connected with each other–because look how they share diction and metaphors! (Not that they themselves know about the metaphors, so it’s only readers who get this imagined happy ending.)  It’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy, then, imposed against logic on material that has to be clumsily manipulated to allow it.

As a set of alternating narratives, then, this book represents a common use of that form: a perception of connection between two quite separate and different stories that can emerge from a reader’s knowledge of both stories, knowledge that neither of the characters in the alternating narratives possesses.   It’s an ideal form for interweaving–or, I guess, “braiding,” two separate threads of plot in ways that make two stories into a third more complex story.

Here, however, we have a story of immigration in which a family is in fact forever divided and its two separate parts out of contact with each other.  Imagining a connection beyond that is just sentimental hope triumphing over bleak but inevitable reason–and ignoring one of the central truths of the immigrant experience across history, that when you leave you leave things you love behind, forever.  I guess it’s that sentimental insistence that love conquers all even when you’re never going to see the one you love again that I most dislike here–it makes light of the harsh facts of the lives of most immigrants, and the bravery of accepting actual separation.  There’s even a nigh-unto-impossible coincidence of the man the girl who stayed behind loves, forced to go across the Atlantic himself, running into the other sister and them being able to come back home again and thus being able to bring news in both directions.   What are the odds?

While Frost calls her longer pieces “narrative poems,” and while they do sort of tell the stories of these two sisters, the novel doesn’t actually feel like much of a narrative.  It certainly isn’t, as a whole, a narrative poem, because each of the pieces is built around a discreet emtoion-driven episode, so much so that the whole seems quite disjointed.  The focus is on small perceptions and insights, not on what happens next.  Despite efforts to join the episodes together by means of the line-braiding and all, each one remains distinct, and the connections exist more on a symbolic level than on any narrative one.   There’s little sense of a plot-driven thrust forward through the whole, and by and large, the alternating between narratives creates little in the way of suspense or, for me, interest.   It’s more like a series of moments captured but unconnected except by the organizational contrivances than like the moment-leading-to-moment that is the basic thrust of narrative.

There are many novels for young people with alternating narratives that allow for actual moves from isolation to connection, from distance to togetherness.  Among the ones I’ve read, in totally random order, are Jones’ The Merlin Conspiracy, Schwarz’s Initiation, McDonald’s Swallowing Stones, Creech’s The Wanderer, Oates’s Big Mouth and Ugly Girl, Bruchac’s The Arrow Over the Door, Swindell’s Abomination, Browne’s Hunted, Wilson’s Secrets,  Macdonald’s The Lake at the End of the World, Barnes’ Killing Aurora,  Metzenthen’s Boys of Blood and Bone,Fitch’s The Gravesavers, Heneghan’s Promises to Come, Katz’s False Face, Clark’s The Dream Carvers, Katz’s Out of the Dark, Hughes’s Log Jam, Hartinger’s Grand and Humble, Watts’ Flower, Doherty’s Dear Nobody, Chambers’s Postcards from No Man’s Land, Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy Van Draanen’s Flipped, Woodsons If You Come Softly Peterson and Ruckman’s rob&sara.com Cohn and Levithan’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Rapp’s 33 Snowfish, Huser’s Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen, Flinn’s Fade to Black, Baker’s Up Molasses Mountain,  Caswell’s Double Exposure, Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence, Katz’s The Third Magic , Brooks’s Mistik Lake, Flesichman’s Seedfolk, Flesichman’s Seek, Klause’s The Silver Kiss, Browne’s Warriors of Alavna, Ellis and Walters’s Bifocal, Ure’s Come Lucky April, Harrison’s Facing the Dark, Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, Dyer’s Ms. Zephyr’s Notebook, Farmer’s Thicker than Water, Nilsson’s You & You & You, Katz’s Sun God, Moon Witch, Jones’s Deep Secret, Hughes’s The Maze, Juby’s Another Kind of Cowboy, Stone’s A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, Draper’s Copper Sun.  This book is different from most if not all of these in that it purports to make that move without actually allowing the characters to make it.  The two threads or isolated characters don’t actually come to intertwine, they only do it symbolically.  They would be unlikely, of course to have made it back together again historically in the context of a story of immigration–which might be why more typical immigrant stories with alternating narratives alternate between characters who meet in the new land.  But it’s the wish-fulfilment aspect of the implied symbolic connection of people sundered by history that’s most noteworthy, and to me, most unconvincing, here.

Jenkins, A.M.  Beating Heart.  New York: Harpercollins, 2006.

The alternating narratives are visually distinguished from each other–his is third person present narrative that looks typically novel-like, hers a first person collection of thoughts set out on the page to look sort of like poetry (but hardly actually ever achieving anything poetic–the only thing this spacing of a few words over a lot of blank paper accomplishes, besides the death to far too many trees,  is to make the book a very quick read; I actually managed to get through two-thirds of it in just one wait in my doctor’s office, and he wasn’t even having one of his bad days).  The alternating characters are a girl from the past, now a ghost inhabiting her former residence, and a boy in the present who moves into the house and into what was her bedroom, where she is immediately aware of him, and he is increasingly aware of her presence.

Why she is there as a ghost is not immediately obvious, but it gradually comes out that she fall in love with a young visitor, slept with him, and then assumed he would marry her.  But instead, he kills her by suffocating her, and no one knows he did it.  He got off scot free, and she still haunts the house, still in love with him and unable to let go.

Meanwhile, in the present, the boy is in a relationship with a girl, loves the sex but has to admit he really doesn’t love her or even find her all that interesting out of bed.  So there’s a parallel, in a way, or perhaps a contrapuntal relationship: a girl used sexually who’s hoping for love, and a boy who just wants sex and can’t or won’t commit to love.  He gets his way, and when she tries to get hers–a commitment from him to loving her–he find himself wanting to kill her.  One iof the boy does kill his girl.  One doesn’t–and that’s what the novel is actually about.

The novelist’s choice of focalizing characters has interesting implications in relation to conventional gender assumptions.  She clearly represents conventionally “female” attitudes, ones very clearly at one pole of a firmly antithetical set of opposites: she is frillily italicized, sensitively poetry-like, and committed to emotion over passion, love over sex, meaningful relationships over random randiness; not surprisingly, she is also of the past, representing nostalgia and pastoral rather than evolutionary survival of the fittest, nature over aggressive conquering of everything.   He is more or less the opposite of all that, a boy of our time with a commitment to lack of commitment and a focus on self-interest.  This would, obviously, have been quite a different novel if we had that boy from the past and the girlfriend in the present as the protagonists: if we went by conventional assumptions, we might then assume that nothing much of interest to readers would happen, since they’d both want the same thing, i.e., a good time and nothing much more–she’d ask him to say he loved her and he’d say it to get what he wants and that would be that.   Or maybe we’d have a less-clichéd, more sensitive boy now, or a more moral and upstanding boy representing a different cliché of the past, and that would create a quite different effect again.  Thinking about these alternatives reveals exactly how much the novel does bring conventional gender assumptions into play and depend on readers recognizing them.

It does so, I think, in order to suggest a break from them.  The plot revolves around the ghost girl’s confusion of the contemporary boy with her old lover: she thinks he has returned.  In a sense, he has, for this boy is in a similar relationship and behaving in it in a similar way.  But at the end, he does not actually kill her–although he does duplicate the beginning of a suffocation attempt, either out of a similar anger at his girlfriend or because he is somehow being forced by the ghost to relive her past.  He avoids being a murderer, it seems, because he is not actually that old boyfriend–he is someone else, an actually sensitive boy with a young sister he loves and feels concern for.  And since he can feel concern for others, he can escape fulfilling the old self-interested pattern being imposed on him.  She, too, can then escape that pattern–for his doing so seems to teach the ghost that she can do so, too, that it is possible to let go and move on.

The alternating narratives here work most interestingly in terms of how they operate across the two relationships–how the alternations of people in two different stories about two different relationships come to form a third story as they alternate with each other, and then suggest the various parallels and variational relationship in the other two stories.  Contiguity creates new and different meanings and introduces a whole other plot or story arc than the one each of the two alternating focalizers thinks he or she is experiencing.

One other thing that interests me here: the set-up is very much like that of a traditional Harlequin romance (or even, say, Jane Eyre: the story of a theoretically more powerful, more brutal, male in search of sex and a theoretically more passive, more sensitive female; he threatens to overpower her with his lust, but she eventually conquers him with her love into agreeing to a moving ongoing relationship.  This novel doesn’t exactly end that way, for the two central characters are not together, and one boy doesn’t agree to love and one girl doesn’t survive–but at the end, lust has been constrained and controlled, and both the central characters are committed to love, for sure.

Coville, Bruce.  I Was a Sixth Grade Alien. New York:  Minstrel-Pocket, 1999.

In alternating narratives, an American boy and the son of an alien ambassador to Earth describe what happens when the alien starts attending a typical American school as a way of helping the two peoples to know each other.   (Interesting how an American writer assumes that the embassy would have to be in the U.S.; I speak as an insignificant Canadian.)  While he’s never completely described, there are copious hints that Pleskit, the alien, is indeed alien.  He is totally purple, totally bald, and has a thing growing out of his head, a more than vaguely sexual stalk about five inches long and as thick as a pencil, with a knob on top that seems to exude smells of various sorts, usual noxious ones.  And he does some decidedly alien things, such as communicating by means of a complex system of words and smells and gestures: he says of his difficulty in writing down one word, “the full name for it involves two hand gestures, a large burp, and a tiny fart.  But those don’t translate into Earth languages very well” (23).  Also, one of his entourage is, quite literally, a slimeball, a round creature constantly covered with goo.  But despite all that, it turns out that Pleskit and Tim, the Earth boy who befriends him, are nearly indistinguishable.  As I was reading the novel, I found myself often forgetting whose chapter it was, and whether it was Tim or Pleskit who was telling the events.  Except for the superficial alien details, they sound exactly the same, write in the same rhythms, and possess more or less the same character.

That’s clearly deliberate.  The novel operates in terms of them recognizing the similarity and readers accepting (and learning from) what they also recognize.  They are brothers under the skin.  Tim is himself something of an alien already, an outsider looked down upon by his more popular classmates.  So he’s already all set to understand and empathize with an actual alien when one comes to his class: note how the title can be read as a statement by either of the two focalizing characters.  The novel then operates, in theory, as a kind of variational counterpoint, as the human alienation of unpopularity is paralleled with, represented by,  and explained by actually being alienated by reason of being alien.  I say in theory because in fact the two characters are so much alike that their alienation, of course, turns out to be a delusion:  they are alike under their very different skin colours and ever-so-superficial differences.  The difference is not real, and so the alienation isn’t real either–despite words like farts, there is no actual otherness in this novel.

In this way, furthermore, I Was a Sixth Grade Alien represents an extreme and therefore more obvious example of a pattern in the vast majority of novels for young people that use alternating narratives about characters presented as apparently but not really significantly different from each other: the characters’ arrival at the understanding that they are more alike than different.  It is, finally, a monological view of things disguising itself as a dialogical structure that represents an illusory difference.  The novel itself even admits, I suspect unknowingly, that that’s the case, when Pleskit writes, “[E]veryone on this planet likes to pretend he or she is unique and different (How unique and different they can be when they only have two sexes is something I cannot understand” (13).

I see this is as a form of one basic kind of superficial liberal tolerance–the kind that argues we should be tolerant of people different from ourselves because in fact we’re all basically the same, really, and so the supposed differences don’t actually matter.   But in fact, differences do exist, and do matter, and real tolerance, surely comes from a willingness to accept what is not basically the same at all.  Tolerance is tough if it really means you have to accept what is other–and the kind of tolerance that emerges here and in many other texts for young people isn’t tough at all, and isn’t really tolerant at all.

One other aspect of the novel also operates in support of the apparently unconscious ideology of ant-difference hidden under its conscious support of tolerance.  The anti-alien plotters turn out out be aliens–there is no truly human being, it seems, who can’t rise to the occasion and accept an alien embassy without fear or distress, unless so incited by true outsiders.  Furthermore, these actual alien enemies are motivated by the sefl-interest of capitalism.  They want to make the mission fail so that they can get access to the riches that Earth apparently has to offer (what those are aren’t specified here–perhaps in a later book in the series?).  Furthermore, these truly alien aliens also look truly different, with tentacles and such, not humanoid at all.   So while the novel claims to support tolerance for difference, it scores points against its enemies by making them so truly different as to be both grotesque and humorous.  and on top of all, that these ugly aliens share their ugliness and evil with Tim’s enemy in class, who shows his terminal intolerance by being more offended at Pleskit wearing a dress like a girl rather than anythng else about him.

As with everything Coville writes, this novel is good-humoured and very good-natured, and while the plot events and assumptions are decidedly (and deliberately, surely, for this is meant to be a widely read book that will appeal to a wide range of readers) conventional, there’s a surprising amount of political and social satire working its way into the mix, disguised as a fairly conventional and fairly adolescent kind of anti-social humour.  Despite its apparently unconscious undermining of its own ideologies, in other words, it’s still fun to read.  I’m not sure if that makes up for the ideology or just makes it scarier.

When I wrote my earlier post on John Smelcer’s The Trap, I accepted the truth of the description of the author on its dust jacket as being “of Ahtna Athabaska descent.”  In doing so, I’d forgotten an earlier discussion on the child_lit listserv in which Debbie Reese raised the question of whether or not this was accurate.  Debbie described how she posted a discussion of her response to The Trap on her excellent blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature: Critical Perspectives of Indigenous Peoples in Children’s Books, the School Curriculum, Popular Culture, and Society-at-Large, and then “began to hear from people in Alaska about his identity, that he is not Native. I was pointed to a series of articles in the Anchorage Daily News that quote the man who adopted him. I’ve followed up, double-checking the information in the newspaper articles, and all that was said there is confirmed.”  Debbie’s orginal posting on The Trap is here, and her discussion of Smelcer’s identity is here.  It’s followed by some interesting comments offering various takes on whether or not Smelcer’s genetic makeup should be an issue for his readers.

Having been reminded of these matters, I’m finding myself wondering if I would have had a different response to The Trap had I taken them into account.  I suspect I would have–and not because I don’t trust Smelcer’s ability to communicate aboriginal values in an authentic way; as someone who has appeared to live inside the culture, he doesn’t need to have actual Native blood to understand how at least some Natives–the ones he lived with–might think or act.  Even so, his apparently false claims to a background not actually his makes me suspicious about his motives in lieing, and in fact, about the novel generally.

In my earlier discussion of The Trap, I spoke of the possession of an aborginal background as an effective knd of cultural capital.  It’s instructive that the author’s apparent counterfeiting of the capital he then wisely spent suggests that he had a clear understanding of that, and a willingness to manipulate readers into assuming he possessed it.  Also, if he is not who he claims to be, what else might be deceptive here?  It’s suddenly, for instance, not so surprising that his young protagonist finds it so easy to act in ways that might bring success in the world of white men, even though he appears never to have lived away from this native village–he seems, strangely, and despite the history the novel provides him with, already adjusted to the white culture he hasn’t actually entered yet–to be already, under what now appears to be a veneer of aboriginal understanding, white.

And yet, saying that, I immediately worry that I’m assuming that whiteness is genetic more than cultural, which I’m fairly well convinced it isn’t–I think.  Perhaps the key issue is that the Native who adopted Smelcer told Debbie Reese that “‘in no way, shape or form’ was John Smelcer raised in a Native environment. ‘He was a middle-class kid who grew up around a military environment, with cars and television and everything else like that.'”

Boyden, Joseph.  Three Day Road. Toronto: Viking, 2005

The author is, according to the jacket “a Canadian of Irish, Scottish, and Metis roots–which makes him, at best, a quarter aboriginal, but also constitutes a claim to aboriginality, significant in terms of cultural wars in recent years about who has the right to tell native stories.  Legalistically speaking, Boyden shouldn’t have that right, despite the claim to Metis-hood.  But Boyden is clearly aware of the problems, for the novel, as I read it, tends to avoid at least some of the difficulties usually found in novels about aboriginals by Europeans.  It seems on the face of it to be well-researched, and shows a convincing knowledge of Indian life in the north in its time (up to the end of World War I) and the traditional Ojibwa culture.  On the other hand, it does seem to fall into the usual European-writing-about-Aboriginals trap of using an idealized version of aboriginality as a way of attacking the inadequacies and failings of European-based white culture.

But the attack on the inadequate and immoral norms of white life is not mirrored in the structure of the narrative.  Like many other alternating-narrative novels written from within the perspective of aboriginality, this book offers two different aboriginal stories and viewpoints even though the central conflicts in both of the narratives are between the aboriginal and the white lifestyle.  As often in this sort of alternating narrative text (as in, e.g. Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, Richard Wagamese’s Keeper ‘N Me,  John Smelcer’s The Trap, and Greg Jackson-Davis’s Digging for Philip, the alternating focalizers are a wise old person and a younger person who learns from the older one.  As often, also, the European enemy remains in the background, unfocalized, as what the main characters have to confront and deal with and try to get past.  A white view of what has happened remains unexpressed, unknown to readers except in terms of the negative (and often, due to cultural clashes or just plain lack of knowledge, uncomprehending) ways in which it strikes the aboriginal characters.  For most contemporary readers, white or aborignal, the novel presents a view distinct from the white Euro-American culture we all know, and shows us that white culture in terms of how it looks from outside.   (And here, with the setting safely in the past, I suspect most readers, white or aboriginal, would be delighted by the attack on residential schools, obsessive Christian missionarizing, the horrors of a pointless war, etc.)

The two focalizing characters are Xavier, a young man who is returning home, severely damaged, from the Great War and his aunt Niska, who has come to pick him up at the train and transport him back home through the wilderness by canoe.  As they make their three day trip upriver, the two alternately remember what has happened in their pasts–so we have two first-person present narratives that focus nevertheless on reminiscences in the past, the aunt, Niska’s, in the past tense and Xavier’s in the present as he relives them now.

Xavier’s memories are internal, for he is in the midst of a morphine-induced haze and hardly communicates to his aunt at all.  So his aunt remains ignorant of what readers learn of his experiences in the trenches.  She, meanwhile, speaks to him of her memories of her own past and then of his with her in his childhood even though she knows he isn’t actually hearing her (although he seems to be getting some of it towards the end).  These are two stories with no audience within the novel; for much of the book, the two main characters remain isolated from each other despite their physical closeness, separated by morphine, by war, by the actions of white men that have disrupted their traditional ways and lives.   There is, nevertheless an insistence that the isolation can be moved beyond–a surprising optimism about the possibility of a happy ending that seems more like children’s literature than what readers might expect in an adult novel about the horrors of war.  Xavier is seriously damaged, physically and mentally, missing a leg, addicted to morphine, and his aunt is an old woman who has spent her life fleeing white culture, living a traditional hunting lifestyle that the inroads of white civilization has made ever more precarious.  But she has a psychic gift that gives her visions of his bad experiences, and a knowledge of the traditional ways that allows her to work at healing him–and at the end apparently, to succeed in her healing.  The three day road is a road to recovery.  There is even a vision of a future for him with a family of his own.

That’s all surprisingly optimistic in the light of the almost obsessive way in which the novel dwells on the horrors of the war in Xavier’s narrative–and also, of life in residential school and in the face of the European devastation of traditional ways in his aunt’s,.  And in both cases, it’s clearly meant to stand as a testimony to the superior truth and wisdom and power of older aboriginal ways.  Aboriginality triumphs over everything European culture has destroyed and attempted to destroy.   While Xavier’s friend Elijah makes a few friends in his regiment, they appear to be ones the help him into addiction and decline, and the novel makes it clear the Xavier’s choice of remaining as separate and as uncontaminated as possible is the wiser one.  Otherwise, there isn’t a positively portrayed white person in the novel, and hardly any, from residential school nuns to Hudson’s Bay clerks to army lieutenants, without massive prejudices against Indians.  I guess I’m cynical enough to have to say that it sounds to me like a wish-fulfillment fantasy.  That’s especially true in the light of my knowledge of the continuing trauma of first nations people in Canada in the hundred years since WWI, and the continuing corruption and corrupting power of white Euro-American culture generally and in relation to aboriginal specifically.  Healing and recovery has not been all that easy and the easily won ending of this novel suggests.

Why are there alternating narratives here (which means, as usual, what can I understand of how they function in the novel, of how the novelist makes use of them to shape his story and make it meaningful)?  The first and most obvious thing is that Niska’s narratives, which tend to be shorter and appear much less frequently than Xavier’s, operate as a kind of relief from the doggedly detailed events Xavier tells of–episode after episode of sniping, killing, stalking, etc., in and out of the trenches of the battlefield.  There’s an almost obsessive-compulsive quality about all this–hundreds of pages of slight variations of the same kind of military action, as Xavier and his friend Elijah stalk and kill countless numbers of German soldiers (Elijah claims 356 at one point, and it feels as if the novel has lovingly reported each and every one), and meanwhile, watch as members of their own battalion graphically lose limbs and spurt blood and die around them.  It’s not just bleak, it is, eventually, kind of boring, the same thing again and again, so much so that it’s a relief to realize as a new chapter begins that it’s Niska this time.  Her tales of trauma in residential school, trauma in the woods, etc., etc., actually seem like brief intrusions of calm and relative sanity in relation to what Xavier has to remember.  Without them his story would, I think, by close to unreadable except by committed lovers and blood and gore and viewing with alarm at the horrors of war.

But beyond that, the alternating narratives are an efficient way of providing all the details of a story in separate bits, their connections unclear and having the effect of a mystery, until they can then come together towards the end, both in terms of plot and in terms of thematic connections, for the two narratives clearly have symbolic resonances in relation to each other).

In terms of plot, first, it takes a long time for the novel to make the connections that explain what Niska and Xavier have meant to each other in the past and how they’re related in the present, a long time for it to become clear how Elijah has played a part in their lives, a long time for the chronological ordering of events and their subsequent cause and effect relationship to each other to become clear.   There are also questions about matters like why the army tells Niska that it’s Elijah who is returning when it is actually Xavier, and why Niska’s attempt at sending a letter to Xavier has had its negative effects once it gets overseas.  By providing information in one narrative that explains and accounts for events in the other,  the novel offers the pleasures of mysteries created and then, eventually, solved.

One of those mysteries is the significance of Niska’s story of how her father has to deal with a woman crazed by hunger who has allowed the windigo, spirit of anarchy, to enter her and ended up eating from the corpse of her husband.  family.  Later, Niska having inherited her father’s skills as a person connected with spirits, must similarly deal with a windigo-crazed person, and we learn that Xavier has watched her do it.  In Niska’s father’s case, his freeing of the woman from the windigo is interpreted by the white authorities as an act of murdering her, and leads to his imprisonment and death.  Later, in Xavier’s narratives, he becomes increasingly convinced that Elijah has been maddened, by war and by his lifelong encounter with and absorption into white values.  His final encounter with his friend is his freeing of him from the spirit of the windigo, an act explained in terms of what it has meant in the other narrative for Niska.

Furthermore, the meaning attached to the windigo in traditional culture as understood by Niska then come to operate as symbolic explanations for what happens to Elijah.  His story becomes an extended variation of the windigo events of the other narrative, and so the windigo, spirit of madness and anarchy, come to stand for the dangerous intrusiveness of European culture into aboriginal life, the dangerous anarchy of giving in to the bloodlust of European warfare, etc.–and in return the madness and anarchy of war come to be equivalent  to the effects of whites on aborginals in Niska’s narrative–the ill effects of residential school, the way in which European culture eats up aboriginals, etc.  Elijah’s story is of a madness that seems to begin in his acceptance of what the residentiual school and army has taught him, a use of his skills as a hunter that goes beyond aboriginal sanity; and meanwhile, Xavier stands back, does his part but tries desperately to resist being tainted and maddened as has his aunt throughout her life.   The novel’s richest meanings (and most subtle propaganda) emerge from the interconnecitons between its two narratives.

An afterthought added later after I’ve read through what I wrote here:  it’s interesting that both Xavier’s story and Niska’s show them both as conscious isolates–those who choose to stand back lest they be destroyed by the evil surrounding them, the war in one case and white society in the other.  So that’s another thematically signficant act of variational counterpointing.

Mayne, William.  Drift.  1985.  Bath: Lythway-Chivers Press, 1986.

From the perspective of twenty years later, this is a dangerously and foolishly brave book.  The last third of it is from the perspective of a character who is both female and aboriginal–in 1985, clearly, Mayne had no qualms whatsoever about either writing from the viewpoint of a female or writing from the viewpoint of a person of a racial background different from his own.  Furthermore, he insists on the otherness of this character:  Tawena’s narrative is all about how the other narrator, Rafe, whose narrative occupies in the first two-thirds of the book, is stupidly unaware of how the world operates, how to survive in the woods, what anything around him means, etc.  She knows and he doesn’t–and we, as readers who presumably share the language and something like the heritage of Rafe, are then seriously othered by her, ignorant of what she knows to be true and what the novel seems to support as being true (by allowing her to survive in the wilds she knows so well while Rafe barely manages to keep alive), forced to acknowledge her as starkly different from who we are and what are own prejudices of the world might be.  Also, her speech is always recorded as painfully broken English, even though we are told she has lived most of her life in the white man’s village,which also others her.  She comes across as distinctly non-human–stupid about things like grammar and personal hygiene that we are taught to value (Rafe objects to her smelling of the fat she disgustingly eats)–but on the other hand, more than human, wiser and more in tune with the world she lives in, a force of nature and a force who can operate in tune with nature, unlike the unfortunate, stupid European boy who doesn’t know how.  Ironically, in seeming more and better than him, and because he is clearly more like the readers the book invites and implies, she comes across as less human.  This is a version of the stereotype of the noble savage, which undercuts the shared humanity of aboriginal people by insisting on their superiority to merely normal European mortals.

That Mayne’s aboriginals lack humanity is reinforced by the fact that they are never identified as anything other than “Indian” throughout the book–there belong to no specific nation, and no specific locale is identified, and even Tawena thinks of herself as generically “Indian.”  There might be geographical clues of something more specific : a high falls the characters walk behind, for instance, and a large lake, and a snowy winter; and there are references to Maneto, a supernatural being, and to apparently native names like “Sagastao,” which might be related to the traditional Algonquin culture, at least, a Google search suggests, as depicted in books by Egerton Ryerson Young, who was a missionary to Canadian native groups in the nineteenth century, and who surely represented a dangerously biased and old-fashioned sort of authority even twenty years ago when Mayne published this novel.  Young referred to Maneto and Sagastao by these unusual spellings in his books.  After a quick search, I can’t find any reference to the idea, key as an explanation as to why Tawena behaves as she dies, that Tawena has not had her cheeks cut in the traditional way because she was not born in a time when there were too many girls and her mother allowed her to live rather than killing her as she was supposed to.  (Tawena might have been the name of a male Indian chief in what’s now Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century, and is the name of a Fiji island, so it seems at least suitably exotic.) In any case, Mayne may have done some rather inadequate and out-of-date research, but he is very vague about it in the resulting book.  He seems more significantly to have invented his own version of aboriginality here than to have recorded anything authentic.

As an alternating narrative, Drift is interesting in that it offers a report of events as Rafe, the European boy experiences them for the first two-thirds or so of the book.   At to that point, nothing alternates, and readers have only his understanding of how the Indian girl is behaving, why she takes him out of the village to see a bear, how they end up in an ice-fishing shack and then drifting in the lake, how he is captured by two Indian women and made to spend the long winter with them.  Indeed, for a long time he thinks Tawena is dead.  It’s only when she is suddenly introduced after the Indian women return him home and we get her version of the preceding events that we learn she has faked the death, arranged things so that the Indian women would look after him without knowing about her (she would be anathema to them without the cheek-cuts, it seems) and bring him home.

A set-up like this does two things very clearly.  First, it’s clearly a version of the Rashomon phenomenon.  After Tawena’s viewpoint is suddenly introduced and Rafe’s is then dropped, it becomes clear that what readers had no choice up to this point but to accept as true is only one version of the events–and an inadequate one at that.  As a neophyte in the wild and in the control of two women whose language and culture and values he does not understand, Rafe, it turns out, has misunderstood almost everything, from why the women are keeping him (he thinks they will sell him as a slave, but they just plan to return him home in return for a reward) to Tawena’s fake death.  He has been completely unaware that she has been accompanying him secretly for most of the trip and watching out for him, and while she acknowledges that he has learned something of the ways of the wilds, she certainly never shares his own sense that he has become expert in them.  For her, he is always and eternally a white man and basically incapable.

And that suggests the other thing that happens here, and that sort of undercuts the Rashomon-like feeling.  Because Tawena’s version follows Rafe’s and corrects it, his ends up seeming less true than hers.  There is no equality of inaccuracy here,  and finally, no sense of truth being sadly unavaliable.  She understands way more than he does of what happens to him, and he understands way less of her than she does.  There an ironic undermining at work, then, and the main thrust of the novel as a whole is to subvert Rafe’s viewpoint, and thus, subvert European ideas of wisdom and superiority.  Once more, aborginality is truer and better–and at the end, when Rafe’s mother refuses to accept that Tawena has saved him and warns her son against associating with these always dangerous aliens, the ironic undercutting is severe–and even more sever when Rafe has trouble recognizing Tawena when she returns his knife at the end–she is not so fat, and all Indians look alike?–and at the end of the novel, we are told, he is not sure whether or not he ever sees her again.  So his blindness and ignorance is confirmed–and while she interprets an encounter with what seems clearly described for knowing readers as a tornado as a meeting with the Wendagoo, spirit of mischief and devourer of human flesh, that seems a relatively minor blindness for readers to see through.  Rafe is the only truly dumb one.

For a writer of European background like Mayne writing for what must surely be conceived of as an audience of primarily children who might be more likely to relate to Rafe than to Tawena, that seems to represent a substantial degree of self-loathing and encouragement of readers’ self-loathing.  There’s something surprisingly Swiftian going on here, something darkly satiric–and something that makes use of a fairly pseudo form of aborginality primarily to critique non-aborginals, without any commitment to authenticity or to the possibility of an actual aboriginal audience.  Daring, but, as I said, dangerous and foolish and deserving of much criticism.  Completely imaginary Houyhnhnms seem a wiser choice to accomplish what Swift did and Maybe appears to have wanted to accomplish here.

Drift, like so many other children’s books by non-aborginals with alternating narratives, alternates an aboriginal characrer and a white one, makes the dispute between their cultures central, and makes its version of aboriginality nobler and more desirable than mainstream European values.