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Daniel Poliquin
Translated by Wayne Grady

Toronto, Douglas & Mclntyre, 1991. 158pp, paper, $16.95
ISBN 0-88894-712-7. CIP

Grades 9 and up/Ages 14 and up
Reviewed by Barbara Cornfield.

Volume 19 Number 5
1991 October

Daniel Poliquin, a Franco-Ontarian writer, is the author of three novels and a book of short stories. He is well known in French Canada, and will no doubt become more familiar to English-speaking Canadians now that his novels are being translated.

The setting of this humorous satirical novel is Sioux Junction, a small town in northern Ontario where the famous painter, Thomas Obomsawin, is being tried for allegedly setting fire to his mother's house. There is very little point to the trial. Obomsawin could not care less about the proceedings, the crown attorney in Thunder Bay has never heard of Sioux Junction, and the judge and lawyers have more personal interest in prolonging the trial than in seeing justice accomplished. Jo Con­stant, manager of the local hotel, who arrested the accused, "had half a mind to say the hell with it and send Obomsawin home with a reprimand. But his wife, who had time to think the whole thing over, wouldn't hear of that: why throw out a good customer whose tab is being picked up by the govern­ment?" The suggestion is that the trial is held not so much because of the destruction of the house, which was owned by the bank, but because of the potential value of the paintings lost in the fire. Perhaps someone in this town could have profited from the sale of the paintings. In reality, the reader is told, Obomsawin painted only in order to be able to eat, and not for any artistic or economic reasons.

The population of the town forms a microcosm suspiciously similar to Canadian society today. As the history of the town and the origins of its inhabitants unfold, no group remains unscathed. The English, the Ukrainians, native people, judges, lawyers, journal­ists and immigration officials all come under scrutiny. A parade of naive, one-faceted characters live in this town, which is gradually being depopulated after the closure of the sawmill. Eventu­ally, this parody of Canadian society will be completely obliterated by the creation of a large dam and the flooding of the area.

A recurrent theme is the relative usefulness of the French and English languages and cultures. A Ukrainian is advised to change his name to an English one by a Halifax immigration officer, who assures him that the future will be his with a pronounceable English name. The hero, Obomsawin, is alingual since he does not know any language very well. He has his basic tourist-based knowledge of Sioux, he attended French school, and he finds English a useful tool to have, but no more. The language problem is belittled by the townspeople, whose coexistence disperses any notion that the different cultures need to be separated. The native people do not fare as well as the other ethnic groups, and are frequently mistreated by them.

The obvious satire of the present Canadian situation is amusing although unsettling, since all the characters are to varying degrees depraved. There are many very funny scenes in the novel. The description of how the Constants manage to circumvent the loss of the liquor licence at the Logdrivere' Hotel and the reasons why Obomsawin thinks French is a dangerous and degenerate language are hilarious. Still, do not read the novel for solutions to the problems of multicultural Canada. Poliquin is much more interested in the creation of a lively group of diverse characters than he is in political solutions. His depic­tions are refreshing, and it is gratifying that this novel is now accessible to English-speaking readers.


Barbara Cornfield, National Library of Canada, Ottawa, Ont.
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