on October 9, 2001
When does a novel of fiction become 'too' autobiographical? Is there a line in the sand that cannot be crossed, a line that seperates the purely imagined from stark reality? If there is such a line, celebrated Canadian author Tomson Highway dances on its edge many times over, in his alternately humourous and harrowing novel KISS OF THE FUR QUEEN.
FUR QUEEN tells the truly sad tale of Champion and Ooneemeetoo Okimasis, Cree brothers growing up in Northern Manitoba. At an all-too-early age, Champion and Ooneemeetoo are torn from their magical life, thrust headlong into Canada's then-enforced policy of subjecting native children to Catholic residential schools. They are renamed Jeremiah and Gabriel, force-fed a life of Christian beliefs, subjected to monstrous acts by the priests, and removed from any conception of their people's history, language, and traditions. Slowly maturing into young men, Champion (Jeremiah) begins a career as a concert pianist, while Gabriel pursues a life in dance. As they struggle to cope in a world that increasingly alienates them from their past, their heritage re-enters their lives in unexpected and sometimes tragic ways.
Highway is a gifted writer, as evident from the multitude of awards he recieved for his plays THE REZ SISTERS and DRY LIPS OUGHT TO MOVE TO KASPUSKASING (both incredible plays, by the way). His presentation of the realities of Native-Canadian life has been lauded for its sense of humanity in the face of horror, as well as for showing a world that many people would rather ignore, or refuse to believe exists. So it is with FUR QUEEN. Highway's slow evolution of the narrative is masterful, travelling from the nostalgic remembrances of a child's idyllic life to the brutalities that face Native-Canadians in the 'evolved' city of Winnipeg. His inter-twining of Cree mythology with modern prose serves to more fully involve the reader in the Okimasis's daily struggle. At times, the writing becomes a bit confusing, slightly hallucinatory, but this disparity aids the reader in understanding the warring factions that exist within the minds of Jeremiah and Gabriel. We are all products of our upbringing, and nowhere is this more evident than in the confusion and self-loathing that threatens to consume the brothers at every turn.
But when does it become too autobiographical to qualify as fiction? Granted, almost all authors could be accused of importing elements of their lives into their work, but Highway pushes the envelope. He, too, grew up in Northern Manitoba, and was forced, along with his brother Rene, to attend Catholic school. There, they were both abused at the hands of their religious teachers, in a ongoing chapter of Canadian history that must surely rank as one of its most shameful. Rene grew up to be a dancer, while Tomson slowly evolved as a writer, much as Jeremiah does. And all the while, both were subjected to the casual and blatant racism that Native-Canadians face daily.
Yet perhaps this is besides the point. Whether one's story is thinly disguised as 'fiction' or not does not alter the powerful nature of the story itself. By attributing a fictional aspect to the narrative, Highway may be better able to import the more fantastical elements that lurk behind the realism, adding the omnipresent Fur Queen as a fairy godmother of sorts, a personal angel that guides the Okimasis family through their tribulations. And whether autobiographical or not, FUR QUEEN constantly guides the reader into unexpected places.
Are there better novels out there? Yes. Highway sometimes loses control of the story, and his experienced hand at dialogue is sometimes thwarted by the more descriptive nature of a novel. Despite this, KISS OF THE FUR QUEEN is an important novel, one that should be told many times over. The story is far too familiar for those in similar circumstances, and far too imcomprehensible for those lucky enough to have had a choice in where their lives would take them. By confronting the issues, as Highway does fearlessly, we can see where we've been, and maybe we can affect change as to where we're headed.
on December 2, 1998
I recommend this book highly. It successfully descibes the idyllic childhood of two brothers, and how this childhood, and a Canadian aboriginal culture's attempt to adapt on its own terms to Euiropean-based culture are heartlessly ended by forced assimilation, land expropriation, and horrifying abuse. The story follows the two brothers from conception in the 1950s into their 30s in the 1980s. Once they leave home to go to a religious residential school, the tone of the story is of an ever-returning, inescapable sadness, which nothing--not flamboyance, not artistic creation, not sex, not consciousness-altering substances, not numbness, not attempting to reintegrate into aboriginal culture, not helping children of the next generation--can allay. The book had a powerful effect on me. I'm not sure whether or not it is a masterpiece, and thus deserving of 5 stars. Much of what it was telling me was so surprising, so shocking, or so emotional, that on first reading, I am unable to look at the book with enough detachment to make that call. Read it and see what you think.
on November 10, 1998
Kiss of the Fur Queen is a marvelous first novel by a poet and playwrite of lyrical talent. As an admirer of the native arts I had my first introduction to Tomson Highway at the Stein Valley festival in BC. He performed a recitation of a play that rung a true chord. Having lived in Northern Canada for ten years and "down south" for three, his reading brought the north back to me. His novel has now done that ten fold. Simply by using the mood language of his culture I was transported back to the north and to the feelings of acceptance I always experienced there. Tomson Highway has the ability to translate into words, the feeling of living in the north, even though only a portion of the novel is set there. A truly enjoyable read that all ex northerners should enjoy. Like a warm bath comforts tired muscles, this book brings comfort to all those who miss the remarkable ambiance of the north. Hopefully those who have never traveled to this most sane part of Canada, will discover a little touch of that magic
on December 13, 2010
Wow, a Can Lit novel that doesn't take itself too seriously? I thought that wasn't even possible! Despite the seriousness of the subject matter such as native children being forced to attend residential schools and the sexual abuse of children by priests, this book is full of warmth, humour and spirituality combined with great storytelling.
The writing and descriptions are over-the-top at times, which gives the book almost a meta-fiction feel. It reminded me think of Kundera's _Unbearable Lightness of Being_ for example (although in ULB the author actually states outright that his characters aren't real people). Still, the two books share a style I can only think of as "gentle" - a kind of unassuming spirituality that radiates compassion. Both stories feel like they are told by a master, who uses a light tone to address the darkest issues of the human heart, and whose characters emerge transcendent.
Just read it. You won't regret it.
on January 2, 1999
Once again, as in his plays 'The Rez Sisters' and 'Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing', Tomson has held me spell bound through this multi-leved spiritual journey. It is a symphony that transcends music into the printed word. The themes, fugues, melodies, will take you on a journey that bridges reality with the spritual essence of Indian culture. Meegwetch Tomson!