by Barbara Kamienski
Published at 2016-08-25
Part of the preparation for my latest trip to Germany involved shopping for Canadian Mitbringsel (small presents): for my colleagues in the horn section, little boxes of maple sugar candies; for my friend Peter, chef extraordinaire, a pair of oven mitts decorated with an Inuit raven motif; and for my high-spirited French friend, Delphine, a red LCBO wine cooler with a black moose printed on it. For people I might meet with on short notice, I bought several fridge magnets, all with the same dramatic black-and-white photo of the Toronto night skyline under a full moon.
For the Anglophone bookworms among my friends, the choice was clear: CanLit. As I roamed the aisles of my favourite bookstore, I was reminded again of the richness and quantity of our nation’s literature. So many excellent books to choose from! And my mission was to find three (baggage weight restrictions!). Only three.
As I paused in the “T” aisle, Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness more or less hopped off the shelf and into my hands. It had been more than a decade since I’d read it, but I remembered loving Nomi Nickel unreservedly. So, that was easy. For a moment, I was tempted to simplify my shopping trip by using the one-book-fits-all approach and just buying three copies. But, I quickly realized, given the dearth of good CanLit sources in Germany, the chance that my friends might exchange the books among themselves was fairly high. I’d have to be more imaginative.
One shelf over, at “W,” I found several titles by Richard Wagamese, whom I’d heard speak at the 2014 Lakefield Literary Festival. Impressed by his warmth and graciousness, I’d promised myself to read his work ASAP, only to find life getting in the way time and again. Now, though, with a concrete plan to purchase and the prospect of reading time in airports, trains, and hotel rooms, I would be able to make good on that promise, before passing the books on to my friends with warm recommendations.
Indian Horse was still fresh in my memory from the 2013 Canada Reads debates on CBC (it won the People’s Choice award), so I knew that would be a good pick for both me and one of my bookish friends. But I was also interested in reading Wagamese’s early work, so my third and final choice was Keeper’n Me, his first novel, published in 1994.
It’s the story of Garnet Raven, an Ojibway man who, in the sixties scoop, is taken as a small child from his parents on the Ojibway White Dog Reserve and placed in a series of foster homes. In his mid-teen years, he runs away to Toronto, where he discovers his love for the blues music and tries on a number of identities—Chinese, Mexican, Hawaiian, anything but Aboriginal—and eventually settles in with a black friend and his close-knit family. But the big city isn’t a good place for Garnet; he starts dealing drugs and soon finds himself in jail. This is where he is when his brother Stanley finally tracks him down and invites him to come home. Sporting an Afro, lime-green disco pants and platform shoes, Garnet arrives at White Dog feeling like an outsider. But with the help of his family and Keeper, an old friend of Garnet’s grandfather and the local knowledge keeper, he slowly begins to find his way back to his true identity.
For sure, this a story of homecoming, of one man finding himself. But it is so much more: a gentle and thoughtful introduction to Aboriginal philosophy, to a way of being in the world and living with care and respect for one’s fellow creatures and the earth.
I will definitely be reading more of Richard Wagamese’s work!