________________ CM . . . . Volume XXI Number 23 . . . . February 20, 2015



Murielle Cyr.
Winnipeg, MB: Pemmican, 2014.
64 pp., pbk., $14.95.
ISBN 978-1-894717-94-6.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Joanne Peters.

**½ /4



Tala counted the days until her 13th birthday next month; soon, there would be no more nagging from Susan, or anyone else who figured they had a right to tell her what to do. It sure didn't help that Susan's kitchen window looked straight into theirs, and that her son Josh was Dason's best friend.

Car tires crunched the loose gravel on their driveway. Tala bolted for the front door.

"Must be Tom." She sighed, relieved.

He usually finished conducting his wilderness expeditions about mid afternoon and was home in time to fix supper. But that hadn't happened yesterday. She'd fallen asleep on the couch waiting for him to come home. When she checked his bedroom first thing this morning his blankets were still in the same heap on the floor. He hadn't picked up any of her text messages, either - not that he could when he was in the woods - but he might pick up signals if he was on higher ground next to the mountain. Maybe he forgot to charge his cell phone again, or maybe it was simply turned off. Whatever the reason, it just wasn't like him to not check in on her and Dason. Something was definitely not right.
(pp. 5-6)

Soon to be 13-year old Tala and her eight-year old brother Dason live in the Gaspé Peninsula, where their father, Tom, is known as "the best wilderness guide" (p. 9) in the area. As the story begins, it is August, and Tala is eagerly anticipating starting high school in three weeks, and she's counting the days until her thirteenth birthday. Tom is a very responsible man, both to his family and his clients, and it is worrisome for him not to have connected with his children, just to check in at the end of the day. Their mother, Anjij, died in an accident two years ago, and Susan, their neighbour and mother's friend, has "made it her mission since then to always check up on them." (p. 5) Undoubtedly, Susan's concern is well intentioned, but Tala sees it as "snooping", and a visit from Officer Scott (a child welfare officer checking into Tom's absence from his children) furthers her annoyance. Add to all of this is a real concern that Tom may have encountered poachers and come to grief at their hands. Last summer, a local hunter was found dead in the woods, next to the carcass of a mutilated bear.

      So, Tala decides to take matters into her own hands; she'd prefer to deal with it by herself, but Dason, in annoying, bratty, little brother fashion, insists on accompanying her. They get their knapsacks, packed with wilderness survival necessities, hop on their mountain bikes, and head down the trail that will get them to the deep woods where they hope to find their father. She knows, also, that the woods are a place of spiritual sanctuary for him, a place where, "[Tom] does a bit of cleanup in [his] head, gets close to Anjij (his late wife) and connects with her spirit." (p.15) Tom has told Tala and Dason stories of the spirits which live in the woods and mountains, and their favourite story is of the Culloo, a terrifying mountain creature, a "humongous black bird who nested on a high, unreachable mountain top" (p.15) and which, after capturing its prey in its talons, dashes them to pieces on the rocks by its nest. Perhaps because he's younger, Dason likes the story of the Stone People, the Wiklatmu'j, the "little people", cave dwellers with fat, frog like bodies with tiny legs and arms, capable of moving at lightning speed, playing tricks on tricks on people at night. Those who disrespect them might find themselves tied to a tree, with their belongings scattered in the forest.

      However, the further the two venture into the forest, the scarier it gets. They find their dad's pickup truck, its tires slashed, and beside it, a bigger, newer black truck, its cargo box filled with four huge coolers. The ever adventurous Dason opens one, and it's definitely not a picnic basket. Inside are chunks of black fur, floating in red liquid. Tala suspects poachers are near, and soon they hear voices and hide. Three men, dressed in full hunting camo, like a SWAT team, have Tom captive, and they don't plan to let him live long. Tala knows that she and Dason have to find an escape route, but they also have to find their father.

      Following a harrowing night spent camping in a cave in the side of the mountain, while a thunderstorm rages, they awaken and find a large black feather. They are in Culloo country - is it a sign? Why are their knapsacks in a corner of the cave, far from where they left them? Have they angered the Stone People? And the pictographs which cover the cave walls - what is their meaning? At the sound of a booming gunshot, they bolt from the cave and continue looking for Tom, galvanized by the energy of the mysterious black feather. At last, they do find their dad, tied to a tree, one leg badly injured, taunted by one of the poachers, who is waiting for Tala and Dason to show up, so that he can kill all three. Tala and Dason devise a plan which lures the poacher away from Tom, and, by incredible luck, the poacher suffers accidental death (probably by the discharge of his own gun), Tom is freed, and the family is reunited.

      Murielle Cyr weaves together many strands in this story: she integrates Native spiritual beliefs, (throughout their search for Tom and the difficulties faced, Tala prays to the Great Spirit, just as Christians would ask God for strength), the importance of respecting animals, nature and the gifts of the wilderness, the value of honouring tradition and story, as well as contemporary child welfare issues (the possibility that Tala and Dason will be put into foster care because of Tom's absences) and the threat which poaching of wild animals poses to First Nations individuals who make their living from the hunting and guiding industry. I think that Cyr was a bit ambitious in the attempt, and at times, it seemed a bit too much, especially for a story aimed at a middle school readership. I found it odd that the children always referred to their parents by their first names, and, although the story is titled Culloo, the mythical creature seemed to play a rather minor role, rather than being a commanding presence. Yes, the hunters are dangerous criminals, but their dialogue and behaviour bordered, at times, on stereotype (the camo clothes, the cigarette hanging off the lip of the man who holds Tom captive). Tom is skilled in wilderness life, and, although obviously a caring father, he, nonetheless, comes across as just a bit too good to be true. Where the story does shine, though, is in the relationship between Tala and her little brother: the dialogue is classic, older sister little brother scrapping it out, all the while, knowing that beneath it all, these two really do like each other. They are courageous, resilient, and have learned well the lessons in survival taught them by their father and the traditions taught by their grandmother and late mother.

      Despite its elements of serious danger and survival, I think that Culloo is more likely to appeal to female readers than to males, largely because it's about Tala and her quest to prove herself. Boys would like Dason, but this is really Tala's story. Middle school libraries looking for materials with First Nations content might consider acquiring the book. At 64 pages, the book is short, but despite its brevity, it's not just an adventure/survival story and probably won't appeal to less than able readers.


A retired teacher-librarian, Joanne Peters lives in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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