Friday, January 2, 2009

Time to read

I don't often seem to get much time to read any books these days, let alone novels. But my mother-in-law gave me a book for Christmas that has shown me, once again, how much I enjoy the experience once I'm captivated by a text. This time it was Joseph Boyden's Through Black Spruce. There are a couple of reasons it grabbed me quickly. One is a trivial matter but it really helps me: it's written in short chapters, perfect for taking the attitude that one can just read a bit in a few minutes and then get on with "more important work". In the end, as it turned out, I consumed the entire book during a few extended sittings. The other reason for the book captivating me is more personal.

Back in 1967 I was a junior forest ranger in Mattawa, Ontario. That's a summer I still remember quite vividly for all sorts of reasons: the people I met in the park where I was stationed, the endless planting of seedlings wrapped in their tiny plastic containers, the bear the rangers had to shoot and that we got to eat (as best I can remember) afterward. But the key part was that when the camp was over I was convinced by one (or was it two or more?) colleagues to join them in hitching up to Cochrane and taking the Polar Bear Express train up to Moosonee. I remember we didn't get very far hitching so we flagged down a Greyhound bus at a railway crossing (where it had to stop) to get us to the train. I only have vague memories of the train ride and only a few glimmers of what we might have done in Moosonee (and Moose Factory where I recall we also visited) but, for my companion, I do remember that it involved a girl and alcohol. But I don't know what it involved for me and I can't remember why I would have even agreed to go, except for the idea that it was far away from Toronto to where I would be returning soon.

Anyway, the point is that Through Black Spruce is centered around Moosonee and Moose Factory. While my memory of being there may be faint, those places still resonate with me and they lured me into the story. For me, the book also provides a fascinating view of native life that, in my recent years in Victoria, I have come to know more about. In fact, of all the new things I have learned at UVic, it is those things that my Indigenous colleagues have taught me that I think will stay with me for the longest. It's certainly not that I have learned a great deal, I admit, but I have over the years here started to get a glimmer of some of things that are at stake in being a native person in Canada. And for me, as the privileged-white-boy immigrant to this country, it's something I should have learned on my trip to Moosonee but I am ashamed to admit that I didn't. Joseph Boyden seems to have found a way to convey to me some of that knowledge in the form of a novel.

There's something else about the novel that really struck me too, something that resonates with me strongly in quite a different way. That's the account in chapter 21 of Will's reflections on "bush life" after he flees Moosonee for an island in James Bay. His thoughts on simplicity, alone-ness, being with nature, filling time with the little things that need to be done, running around naked caked in mud -- those are the experiences I treasure (okay, not the last one so much) when doing things like backpacking and kayaking. Or maybe I fear them too. Says Will, "Loneliness grew like moss out there, crawling onto my legs and onto my arms."

It's a book worth reading and contemplating. Thanks, Louise.