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

Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls (2002)

Sometimes I buy books for the stories on their pages; sometimes I buy them for the stories between the pages.

Alexie Porcupines and China DollsMy copy of Porcupines and China Dolls was purchased second-hand at the Trinity College booksale more than ten years ago.

Because of a handful of folded sheets tucked inside the back cover (although, yes, I was freshly in love with Thomas King’s writing and on the lookout for other aboriginal authors).

Some correspondence between a potential reviewer and two different publishers, an inner-office memo, a copy of a very positive review of the book which appeared online in a regional newspaper, and the reviewer’s handwritten notes.

For the price of $5, could I understand why a reviewer who was writing for an Anglican church publication was so eager to get a copy of this book, which explores the abusive practices of the residential schools staffed by the Anglican church?

The horrors, general and specific, perpetrated upon residential-school students are now well-documented.

But the publication of Porcupines and China Dolls falls after Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen but before Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse.

The sociopolitical impact of the residential school system didn’t/doesn’t commonly appear on the pages of literary novels; I wouldn’t have thought that discussion of the abuse perpetrated by church officials would have commonly appeared in Anglican church publications either.

Whether or not the reviewer did ultimately cover Robert Arthur Alexie’s book remains uncertain. Her notes stop with a remark for page 68: “getting monotonous”.

Admittedly, it was. Monotonous, I mean. So many nights spent drinking. Men in the bar, taking women home, where they drink more. They wake up hurting, pry themselves through the day, head back to the bar.

Beyond page 68, the binding of this hardcover feels tight; it’s hard to imagine that anyone read beyond, until I did.

Which is a shame. Because the root of the monotony, the tedium, the horror of inescapable memories isn’t yet clear at that point in the story.

“He wished he could shoot all his dreams.
You can.
How?
Just put the gun in your mouth ‘n pull ‘a fuckin’ trigger.
Who’re you?
Silence. Are you the devil? Silence.  Are you my dreams? Silence. Oh well, c’mon. Let’s get it over with! Do your best!
They did and they came smelling of hopelessness, despair and death. They came with big, fat hairy hands and false promises.”

If she had read just twice as many pages, she would have caught a glimmer of the weight that threatens to crush James Nathan and Jake Noland.

The bulk of the novel is scenic in construction. Long passages of dialogue, ordinary settings, packed with quotidien detail: readers quickly develop a sense of the rhythm of everyday life in the community.

This aspect of Robert Arthur Alexie’s novel reads quickly and easily. Even the heavy back-and-forth in the inner-and-outer dialogue (in the quote above)  is not overwhelming, because the voice is as often deprecating and funny as it is heartbreaking. (This reminds me of Thomas King’s ability to twin humour with sorrow. Although I never actually laughed aloud while reading this novel. More wry grins.)

The portions of the novel which describe the children’s experiences of residential school life – in particular their transformations into porcupines (the boys, with their super-short haircuts) and china dolls (the girls, with their uniform bobs) – are short and deliberate.

And when the men admit what they endured as students, it seems almost inconsequential.

“How many more?”
“At least one,” he said quietly.
She knew what he meant. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I talked about it when I  was in treatment, but never to you or anyone else.”
“You’re not alone,” she said. “You’ll never be alone.”

She knew what he meant – even though he is her husband and this is the first she has heard of this – because she knows this story. It doesn’t require any nouns to members of the community, who have heard this story countless times (though not as many times as it could have been told).

When the story is ultimately told, readers do not endure the details. Even then, it is offered in summary.

“Chief David then grew twenty feet and held himself like a Warrior of Old. He spoke of his days in the hostel and of a man named Tom Kinney. He spoke of trust, honour and respect. He spoke of distrust, dishonour and disrespect. He spoke of little boys and little girls in the hostel. He spoke of porcupines and china dolls. He spoke of late-night visit and long hallways. He spoke of dark rooms and dark dorms.”

And it is offered in the form of small diary-like entries which open the chapters, chronicling the life of an old wolf, worn and tired by the act of survival.

But even if you already know the story of the residential school system, have read and heard other stories by survivors already, there is something remarkable about Robert Arthur Alexie’s novel.

“So our People haven’t drummed for a hundred years?”
“Las’ time ‘ey drummed was 1965 when Chief Francis died. Always liked drum dancin’ . Be good if someone brought it back.” He paused. “Our language will be gone in ‘nother generation. Once ‘at goes we’ll have nothing’.” We’ll be jus’ ‘nother bunch ‘a Indians.

To say anything more would spoil the story, but because this is only halfway through the novel, and because there is a lot to endure before-hand, I will say that, yes, there is drumming.

But, there is still half a book left to read. And although there are still dreams of suicide and death, there are other kinds of dreams, too. After the truth is told.

“They dreamed of three Warriors standing above slain demons, dreams and nightmares like great Warriors of Old covered with blood, sweat, guts, tears and pride.”

Dear Anglican-Reviewer who was stuck on page 68: You should have read on. But, then, perhaps you were expecting some other ending.

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4 comments to Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls (2002)

  • A book with a history of its own outside of the words inside the covers! What a fascinating review. Thanks for sharing.
    I wonder if the reviewer really did just stop at page 68 because it was monotonous. After all that initial excitement, to just give up because it started it off a little dull? That’s not a very professional attitude for a reviewer.

    • Thanks, Naz. That’s what I want to know as well. Did she really stop?! It certainly seems that way (the binding was very tight after that point). And at first I assumed that meant she would have just shelved the plans for the review as well. But now I’m wondering if she actually went ahead and wrote the review after all, despite having stopped at page 68. Of course, I could do a search online, but part of me prefers to wonder…

  • It’s so interesting to hear about what you found in the book! One of the reasons I love second hand book stores so much is the possibility of finding forgotten ‘treasure’ tucked between the pages of a book that used to belong to someone else; bookmarks, postcards, receipts, tickets, grocery lists, etc. You hit the jackpot with this book.

    I seem to be finding that drinking routine in a lot of books lately – too much drinking, headaches, nausea, then more drinking. Almost as though this is more common than not. Maybe it is, and I’m the odd one out…

    • Funny: we were just discussing Jowita Bydlowska’s Drunk Mom, too! That quest for oblivion: I suppose it does make a rather frequent appearance on the pages of fiction (and memoir) these days.

      In Alexie’s novel it is very much a case of needing to find respite from the haunting memories of life in the residential school system. But I was watching a comedy special with Nick Offerman recently, and he joked about the fact that most people start drinking on Friday nights to forget about the 5/7 of their week that they just survived, and the fact that in 2/7 of the week, they will have to return to it once more. Oblivion likely seems preferable in that instance, too. (Not to sound dismissive of the horrors which Alexie’s characters have endured.)

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