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.

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