I have been listening daily to the debates over the past three days and this is the first year that I’ve seriously taken an interest in the Canada Reads showdown. I hesitate to say that I hadn’t heard of it in previous years, because I do have a faint memory of it mentioned in passing last year but my kudos to the marketing team this year, lets hope this gets a wider spotlight in upcoming years.
I will admit that I am a JB fan (Joseph Boyden), I have read most of his works – I only say “most” because there may be some of his earlier work that I haven’t had opportunity to have been exposed to – and I have read The Orenda and followed the criticisms of it and relished the depth of discussions that it stirs. This is more likely why I have taken a greater interest in Canada Reads this year as I thought The Orenda was a brilliantly written piece.
The book is being defended by Wab Kinew…..okay, you caught me, I am also a fan of Wab’s too, ever since his 8th Fire series on CBC, I have kept an eye on this eloquent, diplomatic and honest representation of Canada’s new aboriginal voice. His points are strong, relevant and give one pause to think of how one-sided our thinking of aboriginal issues in this country have been for so long – and that is regardless of the topic upon which he speaks.
I hesitate to say that I have not read any of the other novels in contention, (I know, I know) but I will because they are now all on my reading list and I hope that many more people pick up these books and judge for the themselves which book has the most potential for sparking social change in Canada.
I have not read The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood, which unfortunately was the first book eliminated from this debate. I will say this, I have had difficulty with Atwood’s books in the past, they are brilliantly written, no doubt, however I have often found her writing style perhaps a tad too scholarly and “Canadian” for my liking, if you can understand that. I don’t know what it is, I always found the convolution in her writing style perhaps a little out of reach of contemporary Canadian voice? Okay, I won’t flog a dead horse here, just suffice it to say that from an academic perspective her writing is great for analysis and stays within the traditional confines of “literature”. I was shocked that her book was the first eliminated but not as much as I maybe should have been – I will read it so as to revise my stance in future.
As for the debate, I don’t think Mr Lewis did the book enough of a service. I did not hear any bias within him toward the book that he chose to champion. There was no passion in his opening remarks, he came across as stodgy, academic and superficial and I think this is why he lost his opportunity to open more channels in discussing Atwood’s work. Sad really.
On day two of debate the panel eliminated Half Blood Blues by Esi Edogyan which was being defended by Donovan Bailey. I was again surprised, as in my opinion, Cockroach by Rawi Hage had a better chance of elimination based on the content of the discussions that took place. I must reserve my comments because I have read neither of these books but based solely on the discussions presented, it seems that strategically, Half Blood Blues follows an American character experiencing life in Paris, and so is not completely reflective of a transformative voice within Canadian society. I know Donovan begged to differ, and I do agree that it does speak to an important population within our society but in the time limits of the debate, I don’t think he was able to adequately argue his side.
Today, I expected Cockroach to be eliminated as it is a voice of immigration and it’s dark truths which I felt may only appeal to a small sector of society, however, I was completely stunned to see the book Annabel by Kathleen Winter go. I thought for sure the showdown would be between Annabel and it’s gender stereotype theme and The Orenda, with it’s colonial historical theme – two strongly and hotly debated issues in contemporary Canadian society at present. I was looking forward to hearing more discussion about Annabel and I felt so sorry in the end for poor Sarah Gadon, whose passion in defense of the book made my heart break.
Tomorrow will be the final showdown. Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda will go up against Rawi Hage’s Cockroach being defended by Samantha Bee. I predict JB and Wab will win this round of debate and come out victorious. I don’t know, despite Wab’s resounding praise of Hage’s writing (comparing it to Kafka and Dostoyevsky!), I think the under current of the theme of The Orenda and just how far reaching it is to contemporary changes occurring today in Canada between the aboriginal peoples and the Canadian government, will best align with the theme of the overall debate of Canada Reads this year.
If you think about it, The Orenda is a fictionalized account of fictionalized characters set in a time period when the basis for Canada as we know it today was formed. The undeniable fact is that Boyden did his research, and let me tell you my dear readers, as a person who’s toiled under a hot sun scraping back centimetre upon centimetre of earth in the search for archaeological evidence to support the documented accounts, (all of which are, as any good historian knows, to be taken with a grain of salt), that research is not fun or exciting to do. In my youth, not only did I spend five summers as an archaeological laborer, I also spent two semesters in a paid internship conducting a forensic archaeological study of human remains from a Huron site. The time of the Jesuit, colonization and specifically, the region of Huronia, is dear to my heart because I am very familiar with it, and in his fiction, Boyden has been able to transport the average reader into that world, something no one has ever been able to successfully do before.
Keeping in mind that these three people (characters) did not actually exist and that the story is fiction and is based on accounts of history, the telling of the story, it’s violence, it’s brutal reality, it’s exposure of our most base humanity be it resilience, pride or love, cause one to think that these characters could have existed in that world. Having done the study myself, having read the historical accounts, Boyden transports me back to that time period in a far more relate-able way than any single account ever did.
The fact remains that although historical fiction, Boyden’s novel, speaks to a point in the history of our country that is undeniable, to deny it would be equivalent to denying the holocaust. It resonates and gives meaning to the many voices rising from the ashes in today’s aboriginal societies. It helps and brings a bigger perspective of the legacy carried by the aboriginal people of this country and it brings that perspective to the average reader who would not have otherwise known about this time in our countries formation, as it is not often taught to the extent that it perhaps should be in our education system. The colonization of Canada was brutal, as brutal as the colonization of all other countries in the world. The loss of identity, the struggles of the main protagonists, these could have been people in any country in any area of the world during their colonization histories. The Irish, the Scots, the Australians, the many countries of Russia and look even to what is occurring in regions of the world today, Crimea – it is human nature to colonize, expand and diversify but it is also human nature to consider what effect colonization has on the people being colonized.
I found that not only does The Orenda speak to the history of this country and the generations of effect of colonization on our aboriginal populations, but it also speaks to the very nature of being human and that in itself is a global voice.
(Jumping down off my podium)
Tune in tomorrow for the final debates on Canada Reads, log on to Canada Reads online and cast your vote and get out there, buy the books and support our Canadian voices! Happy Reading!!
(Quick Update: I purchased my copy of The Year of the Flood today and discovered it is the second in a trilogy – sooooo, looks like it will be shelved until I can purchase the other two novels. Remember, good writers read…and read a lot apparently!)