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Good stories, these ones: There's a canny depth to the fun yarns of Thomas King, like how the Borg created the Indian Act

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  • Don
    Sep. 11, 2005. 01:00 AM Good stories, these ones FICTION | There s a canny depth to the fun yarns of Thomas King, like how the Borg created the Indian Act
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 12, 2005
      Sep. 11, 2005. 01:00 AM

      Good stories, these ones
      FICTION | There's a canny depth to the fun yarns of Thomas King, like how the Borg created the Indian Act


      A Short History

      of Indians in Canada

      by Thomas King


      232 pages, $24.95

      It would be misleading to label Thomas King a storyteller, though it's easy to imagine his voice, familiar to listeners of his CBC Radio series The Dead Dog Café, reading aloud any of the new and previously published stories collected in A Short History of Indians in Canada. The stories' sharp openings, which establish plot and tone within three or four usually short sentences, lend themselves to King's deadpan but rich voice. The characters, with their droll dialogue and comically apt surnames, beg to be verbally performed.

      But the storyteller label does not do justice to King. The word itself, at least in Canadian literary circles, has acquired something of a negative connotation, a label applied to authors of genre and children's fiction to politely corral and categorize their plot-driven works. The insinuation here is that story-based fiction, though enjoyable in the short term, fails to elicit in the mind of the reader the deeper levels of thought and reflection of true literary fiction. According to this notion, plot equals escapism.

      This prejudice is especially strong in the hothouse atmosphere of Canadian short stories, which remains steeped in modernist techniques of verbal association, internal monologue and realistic dialogue and characters.

      So where does King's work fit? To answer this, a reader has to look beyond the narrative paradigms of most contemporary Canadian literary fiction to more global literary and oral traditions. King's work derives much of its power and plot from traditional aboriginal storytelling models, which often stress ambiguity, paradox and humour, seemingly at the expense of a clear moral lesson and sense of narrative closure - though the moral is available to the attentive reader or listener. Many aboriginal tales, as King points out in his 2003 Massey Lectures (published as The Truth About Stories), also exist merely to entertain and amuse.

      King is also indebted to magic realist and absurdist traditions, with their relentless and often playful questioning of the truths, histories and dominant literary models of European culture. Magic realism, especially, revels in subverting classic European motifs with exaggeration, fantasy and comedy.

      This sense of directed play is at work in many of the stories here. "Tidings of Comfort and Joy" reimagines the nativity story on a farm where Indians are collected and housed together in a human menagerie. "Coyote and the Enemy Aliens" has the mythological trickster accidentally participating in the rounding up and shipping off to internment camps of Canadian-Japanese citizens during the World War II.

      "Where the Borg Are" is a full-out postmodern take on colonialism that posits the 1875 Indian Act, which attempted to completely assimilate Indians in Canada, as the work of the Borg, the voracious alien race that was defeated by Star Trek: The Next Generation's Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

      What saves these stories from lapsing into mere satire is King's touch for character and dialogue, and his obvious affection and respect for the cultural traditions (and television shows) that are taken to task. King easily weaves European and native narrative techniques, showing the strengths and weaknesses and hidden traps on both sides. But he anchors his work in the speech, pop culture and attitudes of contemporary North America, including the daily realities of native life both on and off the reserve.

      What's more impressive is how King firmly embeds the less fantastic and allegorical stories within wide-ranging socio-political critique and understanding of the historical forces that shape his characters' lives.

      In "Haida Gwaii," an elliptical story of an interracial love affair on its last legs, the native female narrator is awoken by a telephone call from her white lover, who claims to have run over an eagle at a busy Toronto intersection. After telling him that there are no eagles in Toronto, she remembers another incident involving an eagle:

      "A friend in Alberta once showed me an eagle hung on a fence, its head blown away by a farmer from Fort Macleod who feared the bird might want something he owned. Might swoop down and pick his pocket when his back was turned. Steal his truck. Sleep with his wife. Occupy his home."

      This short passage says more about the history and impact of colonialism in Canada than any of the earnest, middlebrow historical novels clogging publishing catalogues these days, and it's a hell of a lot more fun to read. It's also entirely appropriate to the story that follows, in which the narrator reflects on the incidents and forces that have severed her relationship with her lover.

      Ultimately, A Short History of Indians in Canada can be read purely for its exuberance, storytelling and wit, but there's no reason for the reader to settle for charm and escapism when, with just a little digging, you can have so much more.

      Toronto's James Grainger is review editor of Quill & Quire and author of The Long Slide, winner of the 2005 ReLit Award for best short story collection.

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