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The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp
Douglas & MacIntyre 1996
Trade Paperback with Flaps
119 pages

For the final Travel the Globe Resolution book, Kristie of Live Through Books and I needed to read a book from any Native American nation/tribe. Living in Canada, I decided to tweak it a bit to Native Canadian – since, after all, the notions of “America” and “Canada” are constructs that have nothing to do with the indigenous populations.

The Lesser Blessed is set in the fictional town of Fort Simmer – based on Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories, a very harsh, bleak part of Canada. Seventeen-year-old Larry is a Dogrib (Tlicho) Indian (as is the author), living with his mother who’s studying part-time to be a teacher. Tall and skinny and covered in burn scars under his clothes, he has a wildly active mind and a poet’s tongue. When he becomes friends with Johnny Beck, a Métis boy recently arrived in town who already has a reputation, he’s also introduced to drugs, cigarettes and becomes closer than ever before to the girl of his dreams, local town slut and Johnny’s girlfriend, Juliet Hope.

There’s something sweet and endearing about Larry, whose narrative voice comes through clearly and full of personality. He has a vivid imagination, and the way he speaks internally reminds me of me as a teenager – it’s his artistic side I feel I can relate to, not the abusive childhood or tragic accident or violent friends. And as the story of his past – of his burns and the truth about his father – becomes clear, you also start to feel afraid of what might become of him, that he’ll go down a certain, easy path and become a “floater” (a town drunk).

Larry is a storyteller, and a very resilient kid. The way he describes things is often quite beautiful. There’s a lot you can read between the lines here, a lot that is revealed not just about these kids – a mix of white, Métis and First Nations’ – but about these impoverished, bleak northern communities of poverty, addiction, STDs and violence. The landscape is one of freezing cold wilderness, caribou hunting and social assistance housing. It’s a landscape of people, of trial and tragedy and fortitude and survival. It’s not all bleak, but when you’re reading this in a comfy house in a sophisticated city, coming from a fairly typical white family, the problems of Indian reservation schools, of drug and alcohol problems, of a school system seriously failing its youth, seem so far away and beyond you. Which makes this an important book, on the social justice front, as well as a very human story.

Fort Simmer braces for two things in winter. The first is the cold. The second is the Floaters. Floaters are the town drunks who stagger around the community at all hours of the night. Hobo Jungle is where they camp. But when it’s cold out, they come into town to pass out in the alleys, or in the hotel lobby or at the taxi stand. Some throw bricks through the windows of the Bay so they can be charged and shipped off to Yellowknife where they can hibernate and clean up. They are the lost, and Johnny and I walked among them. The ice popped and cracked under our feet and we shimmied like we were wearing kimonos. [p.59]

Speaking of the school system portrayed here – which you get the feeling is spot-on in its depiction, it makes my heart bleed. I don’t know how typical it is for Canadian or North American schools – I don’t have enough experience with the schools here to tell, though the single desks in neat rows, keeping students separate from each other, forced to just face the front, the teacher, and absorb or memorise, seems fairly indicative even in urban schools. As does the teacher who doesn’t understand what teaching really means, or what students need in order to learn. I was cheering when Johnny suggested to their teacher that they should move the classroom around so the students are facing the windows, and the teacher can get the sun on his back. The teacher’s reaction… well, it may be hard to get teachers to go to the schools in places like the Northwest Territories, but that’s no excuse for ruining the chances the students have, or giving them such a god-awful experience. If that’s what education means to them, it’s no wonder they have no enthusiasm or wish to pursue post-secondary education (there are other reasons, I know, but kids need encouragement and a positive experience, at the very least).

The sad thing about our school was that we were so far behind the system. It’s true, and as a result, the students in our school were baby birds falling to their deaths while the school was guilty of failure to breathe. The teachers often sent their own kids down south to get an education. […] One day we were having a huge debate about whether it was environment or upbringing that creates a criminal. I looked around. Wasn’t it fucking obvious? With the quiet bleeding labour of shellfish in our lockers. The sweet rotting flesh of our feet. The fluorescent lights making me weakdizzydemented. The crab cream two desks over. The gum under my desk. The spits on the floor. The silverfish. The crunch under my runners. The bleeding badge of the sun. My father’s teeth. The crunch under my runners. Kevin Garner was selling drugs in the back row. Clarence Jarome was jamming his HB pencil into the primer of a 12-guage slug. Everybody in the room, as their bodies cooled out, had their eyes fusing shut… [p.8]

For such a short book (119 pages), it packs quite a punch. I can’t say I loved it, though I was impressed by it and I did become emotionally invested in the characters. It was just the right length for the story it told and the way it was told. It wasn’t always easy to connect closely with Larry though, because he keeps so much close to his chest, but you get to know him better than anyone else. The other characters were just as well drawn, from his mum and her boyfriend, Jed, to Johnny, Darcy, Juliet and Jazz. Once I started reading, I realised it wasn’t a Young Adult novel at all – not that they can’t read it, if they want to (it’s heavy in violence, drug use, swearing, sex and other mature subject matter, as well as being pretty depressing really), but it didn’t strike me as a book deliberately written for teenagers.

I find that, a lot of the time, people will label a book YA if the protagonist is a teenager. That is not and never has been the defining characteristic of a YA book! But I do remember reading books in grade 10, for example, about teens with alcohol abuse, or realising they’re a lesbian etc. I don’t know that I ever read anything with this much violence in it, or anything this abstract in its narrative structure. I don’t think it’s written as a Young Adult novel because of the layers, the depth, the things you only get after having lived and kept your eyes and ears open – experience, I guess.

But teens would still get a lot out of it, because this is a coming-of-age story, a story of being a teenager. A story of a boy running scared from the past, from the abuse of adults, from the world he’s forced to live in and somehow overcome. Never more strongly has a story, and a character, captured that sense of harsh reality in trying to find your place in the world, a world that often forces you to choose between your native culture and white post-colonial expectations.

This book is being made into a film, due out in 2012.

Read Kristie’s review of The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich for our Travel the Globe Resolution.


Other Reviews:
Lindy Reads and Reviews
With Extra Pulp
American Indians in Children’s Literature

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