CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 6 . . . .November 9, 2007
The Curse of the Shaman: A Marble Island Story.
Michael Kusugak. Illustrated by Vladyana Krykorka.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2006.
157 pp., pbk., $12.99.
Grades 6 and up / Ages 11 and up.
Review by Lori Giles-Smith.
And all of a sudden, everything stopped. Breath stopped in mid-cry. Paaliaq stopped jumping up and down, his right forefinger still pointing straight down at the ground beneath his feet. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath. No one moved. It was completely silent in the igloo. A curse had been uttered. The-man-with-no-eyebrows had heard it clearly. Can't-see had heard it. Auk and Paaliaq's mother had heard it. Everyone had heard it.
They all looked at Paaliaq, eyes wide and mouths open. No one understood what he had meant by what he had said or why he had said it. Even Paaliaq was not sure what he had meant by his own words. But Breath was his daughter, and as humble a dwelling as it was, this was his igloo. He had built it with his own hands. He could say whatever he wanted to say in it. He did not take his words back.
Set in the arctic centuries before Nunavut became a Canadian territory, The Curse of the Shaman begins with the birth of Wolverine, the first child of Man-with-no-eyebrows and Can't-see. This young family lives the nomadic life of the Inuit, following the food they must hunt to survive and living in igloos in the winter and tents made of caribou skins in the summer. When Wolverine is born, his parents set out at once to find a future wife for their precious son. They seem to have found the perfect match in Breath, the infant daughter of Paaliaq, a well-respected shaman. However, the timing of their request is poor. In a fit of anger, the shaman, known for his short-temper, refuses to accept Wolverine for a future son-in-law. To make things worse, Paaliaq then curses Wolverine saying " ...when your son is of age to marry, he will never set foot on this land again." While Paaliaq almost immediately regrets his words, it is too late. The curse is laid and will prove difficult to lift.
As Wolverine grows up, he learns to hunt and fish like his father and develops a close friendship with Breath. The happy life he is accustomed to, however, is in danger when he approaches adulthood, the time when he should settle into married life. Paaliaq's curse begins to take effect and threatens to take away everything Wolverine loves.
Kusugak's beautiful storytelling captures the reader immediately. While the reader can appreciate the rich culture and heritage of the Inuit, it is the universality of the characters' emotions that attracts readers to the story. Rather than feeling isolated from Wolverine and his family because of the difference in time and setting, we identify with the human experience: happiness at starting a family, desiring only the best for your child, fear of the future, and the need to protect those you love. These are the things that keep you reading Wolverine's story, but the setting is certainly not lost. Descriptions of igloo making and dog sledding are so vivid you can picture each detail clearly in your mind.
Kusaugak uses each character to teach the reader a little about the Inuit lifestyle. Grandmothers tell stories to the children, fathers carefully consider where to move next in search of food, mothers ensure each part of the animal is put to use, and children play the games all children play. Told in the third person, The Curse of the Shaman helps readers understand the importance of each member of the Inuit family and the precarious nature of their lifestyle.
If you are Inuit, you will be proud of the story Kusugak tells. If this genre is new to you, The Curse of the Shaman will encourage you to read more stories like this one.
Lori Giles-Smith is an Assistant Librarian at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.
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