Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Canadian Book Challenge (10th Edition): Indigenous Writers

Even though the challenge officially begins on July 1 — and ends on the last day of the following June — it’s not too late to join The Book Mine Set’s Canadian Books Challenge.

This year is the tenth event, and John has calculated thousands of books reviewed for past challenges he’s hosted. This time, my challenge will be to read 13 books by indigenous authors.

Rather than share my reading list, which will change throughout the coming months anyway, I’m going to share 13 books by indigenous authors that I would recommend if someone else was undertaking this specific challenge.

These would be my choices for that imagined reader’s challenge:

Beatrice Culleton Mosionier’s The Search for April Raintree (1983)
Perhaps teachers in Canadian schools look to this novel about two Métis sisters as American teachers look to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The prose is spare and accessible and the story is told in the simplest terms, but resonates deeply. (This was the first book I read by an indigenous writer.)

Fur Queen HighwayThomas King’s Green Grass Running Water (1993)
Athough now it is commonly used in classrooms, too, I read this one (my second by an indigenous writer) before it caught the attention of prize-list juries and scholars, so I wasn’t intimidated by the string of accolades. That was lucky, because I just thought it was wickedly smart and funny, and all the acclaim didn’t get in the way of my pulling it off the shelf. Just try it: it’s terrific! (Truth and Bright Water is great too and The Inconvenient Indian is page-turning non-fiction.)

Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach (2000)
Lisamarie’s voice is incredible: you just can’t stop reading, even when things get ugly. I’ve lost track of the number of people to whom I’ve recommended this novel. Sixteen years later, the only element I remember clearly is that she seemed to leap off the page. Such a vibrant character! I remember also being struck by this sense of the ethereal being a part of reality in a way which seemed both wondrous and strange to me, as it did in Banana Yoshimoto’s fiction. It’s time for a reread obviously! (She is a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations.)

Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998)
It opens with a breathtaking scene. Such a rush! But there is so much quiet and deliberate beauty which follows in this novel. It was one of my favourites in that reading year, and it is one of those books which I wanted to reread as soon as I had finished.

Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love (2013)
These short pieces are striking and beautiful. You will be inclined to gobble, because they are accessible and inviting. But they are also powerful and are best enjoyed in a number of sittings rather than all-in-a-gulp. She landed in my stack because I was listening to an interview with Shelagh Rogers and Thomas King on “The Next Chapter”, and he praised her work highly. (She is of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg ancestry and is a member of Alderville First Nation.)

Lee Maracle’s Bent Box (2000)
One of the first aboriginal writers to be published in Canada in the 1970s and, since, one of the most prolific aboriginal writers (according to Theytus Press), Lee Maracle’s poetry serves as an excellent introduction to her work. The longest, most dense works are in the second section, which includes poems to/about Mister Mandela, Sojourner Truth, Leonard Peltier and considering injustice in Palestine, Nicaragua, El Salvedor and Chile. (Maracle is of Salish and Cree ancestry, and she is a member of the Sto:loh Nation.)

David A. Groulx’s Under God’s Pale Bones (2010)
When I heard him read at an evening event at the International Festival of Authors, I knew this book was a must-read. These are seering and vital verses which dig deeply beneath the skin to those pale bones. Even though at times the rage is palpable, the same intensity is accorded to beauty. There is much to marvel at here, on the page. So many reminders of what’s worth marvelling at, off the page.

Under Gods Pale Bones GroulxRichard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk (2014)
Although his Indian Horse is a common starting point (it’s shorter and there’s hockey), this is my favourite. It is a reconciliation story on a personal plane (between a father and a son) but one which is so layered and complex that it has much to offer on the matter of reconciliation in a broader sense as well. Although quietly told, it becomes something of a page-turner as the tale unfolds.

Richard van Camp’s Godless but Loyal to Heaven (2012)
This collection landed the author on my MustReadEverything list. The first story still keeps me up at night on occasion, when it flits back into my mind during those dark and lonely hours between three and four in the morning. But as overwhelming as that tale’s power is (based on a traditonal tale, but brought into contemporary times), it’s the stories about ordinary people rather than mythic powers which draw me back to his work.

Edmund Metatawabin’s Up Ghost River (with Alexandra Shimo, 2014)
The language in Up Ghost River is succinct and unsentimental. And, yet, the content is highly emotive. What bridges the gap between these contrary states is a scenic style, as the authors describe Number 15’s experiences in residential school (as Edmund was renamed, to obliterate his family identity).

Jordan Abel’s the place of scraps (2014)
When I was a little girl, I marvelled at the beautiful totem poles in the foyer at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. They were the first things I visited (but, to be fair, not out of true recognition of their beauty or significance, but because they stood between me and the dinosaur gallery, which I both loved and feared, as I got closer and closer to the T-Rex). Jordan Abel’s volume of poetry changed the view for me lastingly and profoundly. His work also made me less afraid of poetry. (I dealt with the T-Rex on my own.)

Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce (2008)
I came to this novel after reading The Orenda, which I did not love as much as many other readers did. And, at first, neither of the alternating voices in Through Black Spruce engaged me either. But, then I began to recognize connections that I missed in the shorter segments. Will is telling his story to his niece from the “dreaming world” and Annie is telling her story to her uncle from the “waking world”, and the process of telling pulls each of the storytellers closer to another dimension (suiting their different needs and positions). It’s quite remarkable.

TenthCanadianBookChallengeDavid Alexander Robertson’s Seven Generations comic series (Stones/Scars/Ends-Begins/The Pact)
Illustrated by Scott B. Henderson, this series is a great option for classroom-use, but also serves as a solid introduction for many of themes explored in greater detail in the longer works listed above. Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story draws specific attention to the Canadian government’s attempts to formalize the process of devastating the core identifty of native children by removing them from their families and traditions.

As for my own reading choices for the challenge reading, those 13 choices?

There are some gaps in my reading, including other works by writers whose previous works I’ve enjoyed (like David A. Groulx’s poems and Lee Maracle’s writing).

And I’ve got two MustReadEverything authors on this list, but I haven’t actually read everything yet (Thonas King and Richard van Camp).

And there are even some non-fiction volumes on my TBR which would fit this challenge (as well as my continued reading of/listening to the summary report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission).

To begin, however: talk, tomorrow, of Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls. And, then, the challenge will officially be underway!

Have you been reading any indigenous authors? Are you participating in the Canadian Books Challenge too?

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