Even though I now live in a rain forest, when I hear “holidays,” I think of snow, frost and darkness. There’s a reason it’s called the ‘bleak’ mid-winter.
But what I treasure about the holidays is that there is time to hunker down with some good books and let the stories draw me into other worlds. I don’t need to feel guilty about not being outside moving around aerobically in the lovely weather. There isn’t any. Or at least, not too much.
There are so many good indigenous books right now. My friends at CBC Aboriginal asked for five “great books” for the holidays, so this is an act of discipline. Putting on my literary spanx, here we go.
Fatty Legs by ChristyJordan-Fenton and Margaret PokiakFenton, with artwork by Liz Amini-Holmes
This is the true story of OlemaunPokiak, a young Inuvialuit girl in the 1940s, who wants to go to “the outsider’s school,” just like her older half-sister Rosie. Rosie has never talked about her life at the school but tries to warn her sister not to go. However, all Olemaun cares about is learning to read books. She begs her father to let her go and he finally relents.
At the school Olemaun, whose name is changed to Margaret by a nun she calls 'The Raven,' endures cruelty and humiliation including being forced to wear red stockings while all the other girls wear grey. The stockings make her muscular legs look big and she is tormented by the name Fatty Legs, but she has a plan to rise above it.
This is a story of ingenuity, healing and resilience. I have had the honour of sitting with Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and her daughter-in-law Christy a number of times. They gave me a copy of Fatty Legs when it came out four years ago. I am grateful.
Love Medicine and One Song by Gregory Scofield
This is a collection of sensual love poems, first published in 1997. I didn’t read it until it was re-released five years ago. It includes a fine introduction by Warren Cariou titled 'Circles and Triangles: Honouring Indigenous Erotics.' Just before we get to the poems, Gregory tells a 'be careful what you wish for' story about Love Medicine, told to him by his auntie Georgina. Then the poems themselves. They dance the ancient dance, in both Cree and English.
They are earthy and otherworldly. They both sing and singe. Read them by a fire.
Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy and Healing
by Jo-Ann Episkenew
In advance of Canada Reads, CBC Books recently took to social media to engage readers in nominating books that break barriers. I was pleased to see that one of the books proposed was Taking Back our Spirits. Jo-Ann Episkenew challenges Canada’s self image of benevolence and democratic equality as she recounts the history of government policies created to eradicate indigenous culture. She looks at the dislocation, disempowerment and the trauma left in the wake of what she calls “policies of devastation.” And Episkenew turns to indigenous narratives as a source of hope and of healing.
Personally, this book has been incredibly valuable in my own continuing education about the damage and injury inflicted on aboriginal people by Canadian public policy. She has led me to writers who have turned my head around and renewed my belief in the power of story. This book may seem a surprising choice for a holiday, but it’s important reading. Jo-Ann Episkenew writes with clarity and passion.
Fall From Grace by Wayne Arthurson
I believe, and correct me if I’m wrong, Leo Desroches is the first Métis detective in literature. Leo is a former journalist and gambling addict who has barely climbed out of the grip of his habit when we first encounter him. Wayne Arthurson is also Métis, and a former reporter, though not a former gambling addict.
Leo gets a break and is hired by an Edmonton newspaper. When he is first on the murder scene, a policeman offers him a glimpse of the victim: a dead, young indigenous woman. So begins Leo’s investigation into the life - and death - of Grace Cardinal.
This is a tense crime novel that could have come directly from the headlines. Wayne feels it’s important to talk about these crimes and manages to relieve the tension that builds up for the reader and for Leo in a very original way. I’ll have to leave that as another mystery.
A Coyote Solstice by Thomas King, Pictures by Gary Clement
Oh, him again? I can only write that because he signed my copy of his latest novel with, "Oh, hell. You, again?" So, yes. Him again. It’s been the year of Thomas King, big prizes for his non-fiction book The Inconvenient Indian and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction for The Back of the Turtle.
Before those successes came this little book about Coyote. He’s having a feast at his home in the woods to celebrate the winter solstice. He’s waiting for his pals Beaver, Bear, Otter and Moose, when a girl knocks on his door.
Coyote and his pals try to take the girl home by following her footsteps in the snow but they are stopped in their tracks by something so awful yet so bright that they are mesmerized: a mall. The girl warns them that this is “no place they want to go,” but as Tom King points out in every conversation we have, Coyote is all about appetite. And off he goes to shop ’til he drops.
It ends well, with just a little humiliation for Coyote at the check out. The girl goes home. Coyote and his pals return to the forest. And Tom King takes a paw at our own appetites at this time of year. The illustration plays off the text beautifully. A Coyote Solstice is an antidote to over consumption and Christmas treacle.