CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 29 . . . . April 3, 2015
In this richly drawn historical fiction, the battle between good and evil takes place in a Cree village of northern Canada during pre European contact times when the matrilineal society is led by the women. A grey eyed boy is born into the Bear clan (or family), fulfilling a prophecy and ensuring that the village will continue to be protected by grey eyed magic. An elder versed in the skills of medicine, Painted Turtle Man, takes on the responsibility of teaching the child, Little Grey Bear Boy, and they grow very close. On the occasion of the boy’s sundance ceremony, a visiting man from the south east, Red Sky Man, offers to help with the boy’s training and is welcomed into the village by the conniving twin sisters of the Eagle clan. Although Little Grey Bear Boy tries to accept this training, he eventually sees it as the evil it is. On his vision quest, Little Grey Bear Boy overhears Red Sky Man and the village’s Red Eye enemies planning an attack on the village as they have sent the men away to hunt buffalo. Gathering up his people, Little Grey Bear Boy uses his magic to destroy the Red Eye attackers but is forced to move his people to a new location where the Eagle sisters admit their guilt and inappropriate behaviour, restoring the balance of the Circle of Clan Mothers, and the village buries the honourable Painted Turtle Man.
Little Grey Bear Boy is a strong main character. He is cheerful, obedient and curious, determined to learn all he can from Painted Turtle Man because he loves him so much. He and his best friend, Flying Rabbit Boy, build a wonderful friendship, teasing and supporting each other through all the steps of childhood and beginning manhood. Little Grey Bear Boy’s discernment and courage are put to the test as he is faced with the evil Red Sky Man.
Painted Turtle Man represents the wise old person in this story. Although not a political leader as he is not a woman, Painted Turtle Man draws upon all his plant knowledge and magic learned from his deceased wife while he fulfills this last great task, to find the true path for Little Grey Bear Boy. He is perceptive, smart, loyal and determined, the man who sees the truth and leads his protégé towards it.
There are several minor characters, all of whom have distinctive personalities, some quite amusing, all interesting, and through whom the story advances well. The stoic Brown Shield Man hides his pain at having to be the executioner of a Red Eye spy. Walking Moon Woman, the clan matriarch, makes decisive, often amusing decisions as she works to keep the Circle of the Clan Mothers in harmony. The bickering and oneupmanship, support and friendships of a small village are represented by the interesting individual characters. Even the Trader, an aboriginal man who has dedicated his life to traveling between villages to trade objects, comes alive as he engenders excitement and demonstrates respect for all.
Some Cree words are incorporated into the dialogue but are repeated and easily understood in context. Dialogue often moves plot and characterization along well. However, the author also uses it to impart information about the Cree people and their stories, as characters persist in telling background information that would be better imparted through action. In many places, the ceremonies of the Cree people, such as the sundance ceremony or the procedures of the sweat lodge ceremony, are told in loving detail but become quite tedious. The decision-making of the Clan Mothers is also very long and elaborate to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard and considered. Although it is clearly the author’s intention that readers learn about the culture of the Cree people, these long passages slow the movement of the novel to a crawl and will deter the intended readership.
The northern Canadian wilderness setting is the living, breathing background to this story, demonstrating how the aboriginal people adapted their lifestyle to the demands of the land. The isolation of these tiny villages numbering perhaps a hundred people who nevertheless developed similar political structures and ways of life is remarkable. Their discipline and acceptance of the Creator’s leadership ensured their survival. The author’s stated intention for this novel comes through loud and clear: to revive an understanding of the past for today’s aboriginal people.
Readers of all cultures will be intrigued by the Cree beliefs and practices. This novel would be useful in any study of Canada’s aboriginal people at the high school level.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.
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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.
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.