CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 1 . . . . September 1, 2006
In this collection of short stories, Mouse Woman stars in legends from Haida Gwaii, the islands that teeter on the northwestern edge of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Irish-Canadian storyteller Christie Harris resuscitated Mouse Woman during the Haida culture's renaissance in the 1960s. Mouse Woman and the Vanished Princesses is one of three collections of Mouse Woman stories originally published in 1976, and it is the second of three reissued by Raincoast Books. All Raincoast's reissued include the original, intricate, black and white line drawings by Douglas Tait.
Mouse Woman, the narnauk (supernatural shape-shifter) with her penchant for correct behaviour and equality, slips off the pages and pokes into our hidden corners. She (and the other legendary characters introduced) inspires us to take care of the earth and its creatures, and to pay attention to the balances required for a healthy society and environment. The princesses of the title change their irresponsible, ill-tempered ways after surviving contact with the powerful narnauks. These stories provide a strong moral compass for those of us (especially young people) caught in the shifting tides of popular culture. Without a hint of didacticism, Harris sneaks reassuring and familiar messages into her stories.
The messages offer traditional values that reach across time and culture to remind us all how to behave: pay attention to the wise elders, don't offend the god(s), give a gift or favour in return for one offered. Harris indicates that there's a grandmotherly narnauk looking after all people, and gives away the secret that even the most proper person secretly loves something improper (like Mouse Woman's itch to shred woolen ear tassels). Liars, deceivers, and bad-tempered people exist in the world, but goodness, honesty, and compassion always prevail. Harris also touches on the concept of culture clash when humans and narnauks intermarry.
The description of the Pacific Northwest Coast flora, fauna, and landscape helps those who haven't been to the Pacific Northwest appreciate the vital impact of the environment on the people. Setting is crucial in these stories. Although Harris introduces the stories with "It was in the days of very long ago, when things were different," she creates such a vivid world that it's easy to imagine it still exists, hidden on the Haida Gwaii.
As Moira Johnston Block writes in her introduction to her mother's reissued book, "It is time again for Mouse Woman to emerge from the shadows, to once again give nurture and help to a generation of young people facing new kinds of trouble, needing guidance through new threats on the cosmic scale of Mouse Woman's supernatural realm: the earth warming, oceans rising, ghost armies of terrorists threatening, and families dissolving. Respect for the earth's balances is out of whack. Mouse Woman's feisty insistence on restoring the world's social and natural order is still needed - will always be needed."
These stories beg to be read aloud, due to Christie Harris's vibrant storytelling voice. They're fun and meaningful, and will appeal to boys as well as girls (despite the Princesses.) This classic collection of short stories belongs in every school and public library.
Jennifer Caldwell is a youth librarian at Richmond Public Library in BC.
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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.