Sunday, April 26, 2020


Each year the Hamilton Public Library chooses a book and encourages a wide community to read it and at some point discuss it.  Reading is a solitary activity, but has more meaning when discussed.

The author Waubegeshig Rice has written short stories and a previous novel.  He works as a journalist for the C.B.C. out of Sudbury.  He credits Richard Wagamese with encouraging his writing.  Richard's book "Indian Horse" had been a Canada Reads selection and later was the 2017  One Book, One Burlington selection of the Burlington Public Library where I read it a second time.  Check it out:

The story is located in a vague fictional area that seems to be in northern Ontario in a reserve north of any cities.  Trying to understand a little better, researched a bit about the Anishinaabe nation which I learned is actually a group sharing language and culture, but spread over Canada and the United States around the Great Lakes.

"Onaabenii Giizis" is the Objiway translation of the title.  It refers to a season that could be either in late March or early April when the snow is crusted, perhaps because of freezing an earlier melting.  Usually spring is not too long to wait.

Like all native North Americans the Anishinaabe are caught up in a modern European culture, but retaining some of their traditional culture.

We are introduced to Evan Whitesky as he has just killed a moose and is preparing it.  We are conscious that he is trying to live more in his traditional Anishinaabe ways, but is comfortable with modern Western ways.  Learning Objiway words.  We learn his wife is Nicole and his son, Maiingan and daughter Nangohns.  We later meet his father, mother and brother.

Modern technology with cell phones, internet, electricity, grocery store, etc.s are integral to their way of life to the point that traditional methods have slid.  Evan has many traditional survival skills, but many of his fellow tribesmen have slacked off.

Near the beginning there seems to be a power failure, but they are not uncommon.  Even a day or two doesn't seem worrisome.  But before too long there is an awareness that the power failure is almost complete except for a generator.  Worse, they have no communication with any other group of people.  There is essentially no communication with the outside world until a few native students return and are followed by some white men and one woman we are introduced to.  They report not only a power failure but chaos.  Their own society starts to crack under stresses regarding food supply and distribution.  People die through natural causes, freezing, violence and suicide.

The ending is ambiguous.  We never learn what caused the disaster (could be nuclear, computer attack on electric grid, maybe even a pandemic).  In the epilogue Evan's wife and children are leaving their house along with his parents to seek another location with the children looking forward to seeing their father.  This might be interpreted that life is unpredictable and we need to follow what we know and seek something better.

Science has presented many scenarios where traditional life is wiped out and the survivors have to adjust to a new way of life.  An isolated Indian reserve serves as survivors of a global disaster and if they can fall back on traditional skills perhaps supplemented by what worthwhile is retained from the "modern" culture.

A tradition from European cultures is the use of fables to make a point.  The natives also had their own fables to make points.

Alcohol history is recounted at the tribal level.  At a past point it had been totally banned after a number of murders and suicides but over time, although the law was retained it was not enforced and many natives were at least social drinkers. In the end one of the white intruders is thought to have used alcohol to encourage behavior beneficial to him.  The "whites" are mostly the intruders and they are mostly a bad influence.  The only redeeming white character is a white wife of an intruder who appears upset with her husband's actions and at a critical point does her own decisive action.

I see this book as thought provoking.  Modern western society has become so consumer and pleasure oriented that we all have forgotten how to make good long term decisions.  The author seems conscious that natives have been seduced or beaten into giving up traditions and skills that were vital in the past and could be in the future.  The rest of us, especially from colonial powers are not only negligent in our own outlooks, but guilty of dragging others down with us. 

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