Porcupines and China Dolls
by Robert Arthur Alexie
286 pages, $32.95
This is the first novel that, to my knowledge, deals with the experiences of natives who attended residential school in Canada and an extraordinary work it is. Robert Arthur Alexie sets his story in the western Northwest Territories, in the Mackenzie Mountains, which he calls the Blue Mountains. The natives there, the Blue People, encountered Anglican missionaries in 1850 who “took away their drums, songs and funeral practices.” In 1921, the natives sign a treaty, agreeing to have their children educated. The novel focuses on three children – James, Jake and Louise – who attend the “mission school” downriver in the fictional town of Aberdeen. (Their hair is cut when they arrive at school, making the boys look like porcupines and the girls like china dolls.)
The Blue People’s history, and the children’s experiences, take up just the first 29 pages of the book, ending with the “Tick! Tock! Tick! Tock!” of the hall clock that regulates their lives. The next sound – in a neat cinematic device – at the beginning of the following chapter is the “Click! Click! Click!” of James’ boots on a road as he heads for the local “Indian bar.”
The next few days will change James’, Jake’s and Louise’s lives as the two men confront the sexual abuse they suffered at the school. They tell their stories at a climactic community healing circle where Mr. Alexie’s profane and hallucinatory language conveys their struggle. James “grew one hundred and twenty-five ? feet tall” as “his head broke through the roof just as the demons, dreams and nightmares started oozing from the walls, ceiling and floor.” An Anglican clergyman, Rev. Andy, also attends the circle but unlike his predecessors, he stands with “the People” at their drum ceremonies.
Mr. Alexie’s book is most powerful when describing the characters’ internal agony and the monotonous bar-and-bingo culture on the reserve. However, his language does get repetitious – quite often things are a hundred feet tall and a million miles away- and he could have distinguished the characters better.
However, his story is rooted in personal experience. Mr. Alexie is a Teetl’it Gwich’in from the Northwest Territories who attended Stringer Hall, an Anglican residential school in Inuvik, N.W.T. He was chief of the Teetl’it Gwich’in in the 1990s. One of his dormitory supervisors was David Ashdown, currently bishop of the diocese of Keewatin.
Note: the first publisher of Porcupines and China Dolls, Stoddart Publishing, went out of business shortly after the book was published in April, 2002. Copies can currently be found at booksellers listed on-line by means of an Internet search using the book’s title. Penguin Books plans a new edition in April, 2004.
Solange De Santis is a reporter for the Anglican Journal and has covered the residential schools issue for more than three years.