It’s February and Abraham Okimasis is on a sled pulled by eight huskies, racing to the finish line in northern Manitoba.
That’s the opening scene of Tomson Highway’s first novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen.
The reader, however, receives mixed messages from the start, as this section of the novel is titled Allegro ma no troppo, a musical instruction directing a tempo that is “fast, but not overly so”.
On one hand, there is Abraham, careening towards the finish line, cries of “Mush” echoing across the wintry landscape; on the other hand, the reader is warned that there is another tempo afoot, a force that is pulling the plot, stretching it into a wider arc, creating a pocket of time for waiting.
In that pocket of time, a boy is born and, then, three years later, he gains a brother. Kiss of the Fur Queen is about these two Northern Cree boys, Abraham’s and Mariesis’s sons, and their coming-of-age.
As Jeremiah and Gabriel grow up, the narrative careens, like Abraham on his sled, between moments of magic and myth (surrounding the trickster figure) and moments of hard-to-bear realism (rooted in racism, first in the residential school system and after they travel south).
Some of the elements will be familiar to readers of native fiction (the tension between tradition and assimilation, the tragic cycle of abuse and alcoholism, misunderstandings between generations and between city- and reserve-dwellers). Secrets are at the heart of many stories.
If moments can be counted as minutes can, or hours or days or years, one thousand of them trickled by before Jeremiah was absolutely sure Gabriel’s silence would remain until the day they died. And then he said, his voice flat, “Maw keequay.” Nothing.
Some aspects of Kiss of the Fur Queen resonate with something different. Readers are alerted to this in the author’s note about the trickster at the beginning of the novel, with his reminder that the trickster is neither exclusively male, nor exclusively female, or else is both simultaneously.
This, according to the author’s note, is a reflection of the language of North American Indians (which has no gender, no male-female-neuter hierarchy) and the shifting, ambiguous nature of the trickster, who can assume many guises, each of which is designed to “teach us about the nature and the meaning of existence”.
Two features about this person struck Gabriel as most arresting, and most disturbing: he was the only other Indian in the room, and he was neither male nor female. Or perhaps both. The creature was blessed or cursed, one of God’s more vicious jokes, the soul of a woman trapped in the body of a man. He willed the creature away; he-she should leave, disappear, disintegrate.
Neither Gabriel, nor readers, will always be receptive to this disturbing and alluring being, or to what it illuminates about the world. Nonetheless, the trickster is at the heart of this memorable novel.
Kiss of the Fur Queen’s tempo shifts throughout the narrative, but the rhythm of Thomson Highway’s prose pulls the reader through the text like Tiger-Tiger pulled Abraham’s sled to the finish line: relentless, enduring.
This book has been on my shelves since it was published, but it took Aritha van Herk’s recommendation to get it to the top of my reading stack. Now I don’t understand how I could have waited so long. And I wish Highway had written another novel between then and now.
Have you raced to the finish line with a shelf-sitter lately?