NOW THAT INDIFFERENCE Or hostility toward the Canadian Indian and Eskimo is beginning to give way to genuine interest (and perhaps some nervous thoughts about Red Power), it isn’t surprising that a few writers have begun to bring back imaginative reports about the way these pepple live. Sometimes we get a poem as good as John Newlove’s The Pride, an elegy for the vanished tribes of the Canadian West, or plays such as George Ryga’s Indian and The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, flawed in some respects but strong dramatic and social statements nevertheless.
At first glance Alan Fry’s novel How A People Die seems likely to be a work of similar quality. The author, who lives on Quadra Island off the coast of British Columbia, has been working with Indians since 1954 and obviously knows them well.
Fry’s novel begins with the discovery that an 11-monthold Indian child, Annette Joseph, has died of malnutrition, infection and pneumonia, and with the decision of an RCMP officer to charge her mother and father with neglect. The 12 members of the Joseph family have been living in the filth of a house that consists of a living room-kitchen area and three bedrooms in a new town created for the Indians in BC. They have been uprooted from the village in which they used to live in another part of the province, and now more than 200 of them are crowded into the town’s 20 houses. Most of the adults are drunk most of the time, they are on welfare, and only one in six manages to survive beyond the age of 50.
It’s an appalling picture, and it’s made more appalling by the book’s message that there is no solution. Toward the end of the novel a knowledgeable and committed Indian agent asks (and we know it’s a significant question because it’s in italics): “How do you talk to a man who doesn’t share your notions about work or money or wife or kids or house or sanitation or what the hell he’s going to live on tomorrow or next year and reach him where he’s really alive inside and he can reach you back?”
Its publisher describes How A People Die as a “documentary” novel, and anyone who reads the book as a documentary will be rewarded with information. But as a work of fiction it misses on almost every count. The middle half of the book abandons the story of the dead Indian child — and the policeman’s angry and anguished attempt to make someone accountable for her death — and becomes merely a series of monologues by various hands on the Indian Condition. And how do we respond to characters, Indian and white, whose author cannot reach them where they are really alive inside? I kept remembering a story that Hugh Garner wrote 18 years ago, One, Two, Three Little Indians. I doubt if Garner knows much of anything of a documentary nature about Indians, and Alan Fry obviously knows a great deal. But Garner made that imaginative leap inside, and reached his characters where they in their turn could reach back to the reader of his story.
In Gabrielle Roy’s new novel Windflower there is a moment when we seem about to hear a northern echo of the tragedy of the Indians in How A People Die. Elsa, an Eskimo woman, has taken her son to visit an old graveyard, and here, too, the people died young. But in this graveyard whites and Eskimos are buried side by side, and in the barren lands by the Koksoak River both peoples died young.
Gabrielle Roy’s most popular book is still The Tin Flute, her novel about a Montreal slum, first published in 1947. That book was followed by other novels about modern Quebec and her childhood in Manitoba, and in 1962 there was an earlier, allegorical fiction about the North called The Hidden Mountain. Now, in Windflower, the allegory has been extended.
There is little here of a documentary nature about the problems of Eskimos. In Windflower, a youthful Elsa, on her way home from a Clark Gable movie, is taken in the bushes by an American soldier (“rape” seems almost too strong a word for her passive and confused acceptance of the encounter). A son is born, an alien child with pale hair who becomes the centre of attraction for women in the Eskimo community. Elsa raises the boy, Jimmy, sometimes trying to find direction in the old ways of her own people and at the same time providing the boy with as much as she can of the obvious trivia of North American life. Even so, she loses her son, who rejects her and leaves in search of the never-known father and his world; yet at the very end of the novel Elsa stands not abandoned but affirming life and the future.
Windflower is the kind of novel, elegiac, not fashionable, poised on a knife-edge of improbability, that is going to bring out the most subjective responses from its readers. For me it is a quite beautiful small book, tragic and yet also accomplishing a redemption.
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