CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 21 . . . .June 24, 2005
In Anne Cameron's novel, Dreamspeaker, 11-year-old Peter Baxter is plagued - or blessed - with the recurrent mental experience described above. As the novel opens, Peter is being taken to a treatment facility after having been in numerous foster homes. At age four, he was taken by social workers from his mother, a prostitute and a heroin addict. Peter feels drawn to his social worker, Anna, and has liked some of his foster families, too, but he keeps being transferred without quite knowing why. Blond, nice-looking but "odd," he has been taught good table manners but little else. As Anna says, the system has been "totally unable to find an answer for Peter's problems."
In the facility, Peter has a seizure which brings on a recurrent nightmare - or vision - of a snakelike creature threatening to take him over. To escape the monster, he flees the facility, hops a train, and travels to a coastal area of B.C. where settlement is sparse and the main economic endeavours are forestry and small-scale farming.
While eating raw oysters on the beach, Peter meets one of the most remarkable fictional creations in Canadian literature—a character as memorable as Matthew in Anne of Green Gables. An old native man comes out of the forest and offers Peter a home-cooked meal. "His face was lined and seamed, his eyes nearly hidden in wrinkles. His hair was long and thin and blew every which way." With the old man is a large solemn-looking middle aged man who does not speak.
The old man feels that Peter has come to him by fate, as other needy children have, starting in boyhood when he brought unwanted children home to his parents. "It was said in the village that he could find a child where others couldn't find a fish." The only difference is that Peter is "not of the people," but white. "Grandpa" gave asylum to his silent companion years ago after a bullying incident in town when the mute man was a teenager. The two live in a cabin without electricity or running water, but with fascinating masks, totem poles and carvings, and a spectacular sequined cape with a bird motifs, which Grandpa wore while dancing at parties prior to developing leg problems.
Grandpa explains to Peter that all special people feel alienated. In the old days, if a child had a deformity, he or she was regarded as having a soul still in the spirit world. According to the old man, the noises and lights Peter hears are "Stalalacum," the souls of great men coming to warn him. He urges Peter to stand up to the "snake-thing," which, he explains, is a two-headed sea monster called the "Sisiutl." To face down the Sisiutl, one has to find something to believe in and hang onto what you know.
Peter has lucked into a family. Grandpa's silent companion, called He Who Would Sing, was born without a voice box and communicates with Grandpa in sign language. He is gentle with Peter and waits on the old man. When He Who Would Sing brews herb tea, Grandpa says, "He shoulda been a mother," and when Peter insists that only ladies can be mothers, Grandpa contradicts him, citing examples to the contrary from folklore. Yet, when the R.C.M.P. come for Peter, as they inevitably do, He Who Would Sing "forgot the lesson of the Raven, and resorted to force."
Grandpa, with He Who Would Sing, appears at a custody hearing dressed in new clothes and promises to have electricity installed in his cabin if that is what it will take to have Peter live with them. Anna, the social worker, says that in finding them, Peter has "found the answer to his own problems." The judge clearly feels enlightened and innovative when he offers financial assistance so that Grandpa and He Who Would Sing can "be included as fully as possible in all future treatment for Peter," have "every opportunity to visit Peter at the facility" and take Peter for weekends.
Here, author Anne Cameron resisted the temptation of a happy ending. The only thing that might have worked for this throwaway child is to be given into the old man's custody. After the judge's decision, Grandpa, already old and ill, "shrinks in on himself, his hands becoming suddenly two trembling leaves on an alder tree, his eyes staring past this world to something different." He dies, and Peter and He Who Would Sing can't live without him.
The reader is told: "To shed a form because of cowardice, fear or shame is a sin, but to knowingly change from a shape, to knowingly choose to travel from one plane of reality to another is the choice all the children of the free ones have." The story ends with a vision of the three united in a natural setting, with He Who Would Sing finally singing.
Usually young people like to read books with characters slightly older than themselves. In the case of Dreamspeaker, however, Peter's problems and his suicide are subject matter too strong for readers of Peter's age—eleven. "To choose to travel from one plane of reality to another" isn't a decision to be made lightly.
Anne Cameron first wrote Dreamspeaker as a film script. The 1967 movie by the same name, directed by Claude Jutra, won seven Canadian film awards and was subsequently telecast on the American Public Broadcasting System and on the British Broadcasting Corporation. Then Cameron wrote the story as a novel, one which has been recommended as supplementary reading in a number of school systems across Canada and is on the curriculum of Nipissing University in North Bay and the First Nations University of Canada.
Born in Nanaimo and currently living in Tahsis, BC, Cameron has published over thirty books for children. In her dedication, she thanks the Nootka people of the town of Ahousat for sharing their culture with her.
Ruth Latta is a writer who lives in Ottawa, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.