Marlene Carvell’s Sweetgrass Basket

Posted: January 25, 2009 in aboriginality, alternating narratives, children's and young adult literature, Marlene Carvell, race, verse

Carvell, Marlene.  Sweetgrass Basket.  New York: Dutton, 2005

In this novel of what claims to be free verse, two young Mohawk sisters leave the reserve to attend a boarding school, and tell of their experiences there in alternating “poems.”  As is typical of texts of this sort, the sections are in the first-person present tense, as the two alternating characters report (to themselves apparently, for these are not thoughts shared with other people) events and their responses to them as they happen.   The effect is of alternating solitudes or isolations–only readers can know what goes on in both girl’s minds, and they are deprived of knowledge of each other.  But here that hardly matters–there is very little to distinguish the two girls, whose thoughts are “poetic” in exactly the same way as each other.  Indeed, I can’t see any reason why there are actually two characters here–or at least I didn’t for a long time, until one of them died, and so it became clear that they’d have two separate fates and one would have to deal with the death of her sister.  But before then, it just seemed like an unnecessary duplication–a way of loading even more misery into the book as we read how two characters suffer rather than just one.

In that way, Sweetgrass Basket follows the pattern I’ve noticed in books written by Aboriginals or people who claim contact with aboriginality.  Unlike books by people of European descent, which tend to involve a central white character and a central native one, these books tend to have two aboriginal characters as alternating focalizers, as here, and have less to do with conflicts between different people (standard in the books by white people) than they do with two people playing different parts in the same experience, but not often or intensely in conflict with each other.  so these two sisters have their occasional differences, but really are more alike than not, and combine to convey more of the experience they share than fight with each other.  They are then both on the same side, with their white enemies–cruel teachers who mistreat them–not provided with focalizaitons so that we can get their version of events.   The result is certainly one-sided, in that there is no positive or justifying view of why the white people think the school is a good idea or how they see it as beneficial–they’re just mean old cranks and sadists, and that’s that.

A stronger book might have allowed them to have at least their own view of how they were doing the right thing for good ends–even if it turned out they were wrong about it.  Here I just find myself being crankily dismissive because the authorities are all just plain evil through and through, and even seem to be aware of their own evil and revel in it.   I’d be more likely to be persuaded if the bad guys thought they were the good guys. In other words, this book just reverse the old Hollywood good cowby/bad Indian stereotypes, and so seems equally shallow and melodramatic.

Carvell, by the way, claims only to have been inspired by her husband’s Great Aunt’s experience at a residential school–a pretty distant way of claiming some aboriginal authenticity, although she does make a fairly typical sort of property claim when in her acknowledgments she thanks her husband “for letting his family be mine.”   She does, though, avoid the usual white claiming of aboriginality by not having any terribly predominant white characters to make such claims within the text–but it does seem a book mainly designed to make white readers feel bad about what our ancestors did  (I do sense a primarily non-aboriginal readership as the main intended audience–I’m not exactly sure why.  Maybe because it’s just about how awful white people in power are, with very little sense of what an aboriginal reader might do about it or learn from it.).   The few helpful older people seem to be immigrants or minorities or of African American descent.   In other words, every aspect of the book insists on white mainstream guilt, unrelievedly.  and so it mostly avoids the possible implications of difference in alternating narrators, and the possible subtleties in presenting differing points of view.  It is simply and determinedly one-sided and monological.

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