Aboriginality and Alternating Narratives: Books and Themes, Part Two

Posted: November 29, 2008 in aboriginality, adult literature, alternating narratives, children's and young adult literature, Uncategorized

What I’d like to do now is take a look at the books on aboriginality I listed in my last entry and see if I can begin to do some organizing of my thinking about them. I can do that by going through my various blog entries and notes on them and seeing if I can identify any ongoing themes in them or repeating ideas of my own about them.

In my published essay on the Canadian novels, I focused on the idea that property played a central role in the novels–that traditional objects or parcels of land were in dispute, and that the possession of them at the end of the novel implied a symbolic solution to questions of native land claims in the political world of real-life Canada outside the novels. A number of threads become intertwined in this matter: among them, the relationship between aboriginal cultures and mainstream ideas about multiculturalism, and how that affects ideas about the significance of the past in the lives of people in the present (offiucal multiculturalism in Canada often involves a celebration of heritage as what one has come from but left behind in another place, an idea not stretchable to include aboriginal peoples, whose originating place is their own and everyone else’s current place also. There are also questions about the use of aboriginality in relation to environmental and ecological concerns–the ideas of native spirituality as a celebration of the earth and such.

Property then, and the associated questions about the current status of aboriginality might be key issues in other novels. Among ones I haven’t yet discussed in my earlier essay, Welwyn Katz’s Out of the Dark and Martha Brook’s The Bone Dance, seem most interesting, and for opposite reasons. Out of the Dark involves two focalized characters in two different time periods coming to a new places and dealing with the natives there, while Bone Dance‘s two focalizing characters are of mixed race, and both partially aboriginal. The American novel that comes closest to echoing the property concerns of these Canadian books is Lisa Ketchum’s Where the Great Hawk Flies, since it involves a dispute over who ought to be allowed to live in the community it is set in, and, like Bone Dance, requires its focalizing characters to come to terms with the value of traditional aboriginal culture. It might be that the novel’s conclusions about such matters might represent an American way of dealing with them as opposed to a Canadian one. Also, questions about how aboriginality becomes connected with traditions past and over arise, in Canadian books like False Face, Out of the Dark, Bone Dance, Clark’s The Hand of Robin Squires, etc. and in others like Virginia Frances Schwartz’s Initiation (american/Canadian?), Bebe Faas Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth, (American) Greg Jackson-Davis’s Digging for Philip (Canadian), and David Hill’s Treasure Deep (from New Zealand).

The Canadian books I discussed earlier significantly involved questions of borders, and thus I could suggest that they took part in what W.H. New calls the “boundary rhetoric” prevalent in Canadian writing, an interest in the borders between people and the ways they might be crossed. By and large, most novels with alternating narratives inevitably imply in their differing versions of similar events an interest in that kind of concern. The question, then, is whether or not the border rhetoric in alternating narratives for young people has a specific resonance in a Canadian context: or can books of this sort set outside of Canada be read in much the same way? They might, simply because, as a literature always aware of the borders its mere existence draws between young people and adults, literature for young people is equally involved with boundary rhetoric. I could explore these matters in terms of aboriginality in books that involve alternating white and aboriginal focalizing characters: Joseph Bruchac’s The Arrow Over the Door and Sacajawea, and once more, Where the Great Hawk Flies, two that involve a white girl showing the way to an aboriginal boy: Monica Hughes’s Log Jam (a Canadian book) and Bebe Faas Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth (an American one; and one that involves an aboriginal girl showing the way to a white boy: William Mayne’s Drift.

A lot of these books involve writers of European descent using focalizing characters who are aboriginal, and so raise questions about voice appropriation: what happens when writers try to show the world as viewed by people of cultural backgrounds different from their own? In alternating narrative questions like that inevitably relate to a key concern raised by alternating narratives generally: do they really offer alternate versions of reality, or is there something inherently one-sided about them? Does one side always win, or are there genuine compromises and/or acceptances of ongoing difference? In order to discuss these matters, I can look at books about relationships between white and Indian characters that are in fact monological–focalized through just one of the two central characters. These would include Digging for Philip, Treasure Deep, Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens and The Curse of the Viking Grave, John Craig’s No Word for Goodbye, and Ted Stenhouse’s Across the Steel River and The Dirty Deed, all focalized from a white point of view; and Lee Maracle’s Will’s Garden, focalized from an aboriginal point of view. I might here also want to take a look at book with alternating narratives where the central characters are both aboriginal: Bruchac’s Children of the Longhouse, Michael Dorris’s Morning Girl, Virginia Frances Schwartz’s Initiation, and John Smelcer’s The Trap. Here I might also want to look at some adult novels: Richard Wagamese’s Keeper ‘N Me and Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road. (and his new, related novel, Through Black Spruce, which also has alternating narratives but which I haven’t read yet).

Finally, I think, i’d like to look at Terry Patchett’s Nation, a novel which engages all these differing threads in terms of an aboriginal culture invented by the white author–and how it reveals the ongoing persistence of the various ideological assumptions about aboriginality made by the other white writers I’ve been looking at here–and perhaps, undermines them?

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