I will admit that it took me a long time to read this book. We are talking multiple renewals from the library. It’s not because the text is complicated. It’s more about the fact that this is a powerful story. I am sure that I was not the intended audience, yet the power of Richard Wagamese’s story hit home nonetheless.
For Richard Wagamese, part of this story is autobiographical and I will admit that this fact had me curious. The novel revolves around Garnet Raven. He was part of the 1960’s Scoop, where so many children were taken from their homes and place in foster care. When Garnet’s family finally finds him, he is an adult in jail and makes the journey back to his home reserve after he is released. The exposure to a new way of living and what Wagamese calls the puzzle pieces coming together is powerful. Garnet ends up learning about his ancestors, their culture, and their way of life and he seeks to learn through the teaching and wisdom of Keeper, an elder in his community.
For me, I enjoyed the dreams and the learning that Garnet goes through. As someone who is not First Nations, I found it interesting to read how a man who knows nothing about his history to learn about himself and his culture through experiences and listening to those around him. As someone from the outside looking in, this novel is such a powerful glimpse into what it means to be one of Canada’s first peoples.
The most interesting parts of the novel were the discussions around the bald eagles. Both Keeper and Garnet have visions and dreams and experiences with bald eagles. Just last week, I had the amazing opportunity to see two bald eagles up close while I was on a trip to St. John’s, Newfoundland. If you look closely at the picture below, you can see an eagle in the middle of the frame.
Wagamese’s novel is encouraging because it shows that anyone can learn about their tradition, which is especially encouraging considering the government’s initial plan of destroying all First Nations’ cultures. Yet as long as there are people devoted to learning from the land and of learning from elders, I think that as Wagamese shows in his novel, many of the First Nations’ cultures are sure to endure. Despite the harsh realities of foster homes, homelessness, and prison, Wagamese shows that not everyone is lost. In fact, there are some amazing people around who are willing to share their knowledge. Recently, there has been an initiative to teach young people and children how to speak Blackfoot by using rap. Genius! As someone who is 100% white, it is so encouraging to see that First Nations survived colonization and are hopefully starting to thrive to the point where they can teach Canadians more about how to truly belong to this land.
I have dog-eared so many pages with passages I thought were significant and important and interesting and inspiring. Yet what more can be said? Wagamese uses humour. There are so many ridiculous and truly funny stories (I think I laughed out loud on the plane!). There are so many moments of clarity and beauty. Family and community because essential and inseparable from the individual.
Wagamese is a beautiful story teller. And although I think that this story was not really meant for me, it still spoke to me. It still challenged me. It still made me laugh to the point of tears rolling down my cheeks. That is the sign of a great book.
“Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance” (Proverbs 1:5).
“That’s what’s important really, Keeper says. Learning how to be what the Creator created you to be. Face your truth” (Richard Wagamese).