The book: Ravensong by Lee Maracle (1993)
What it’s about: This novel is set in the 1950’s, in a small First Nations village on the Pacific Northwest Coast. The main character and narrator, Stacey, is the only one in her community to attend and complete school in “white town”. She dreams of going to university and coming back to teach the kids in her village. The village is devastated by a ‘flu epidemic, taking the lives of elders and infants alike. Throughout the book, Stacey grapples with the divide between her traditional culture and the encroaching influence of white colonialism.
What I thought: This is not an easy read. The story begins at a funeral of an elder on an grey, rainy day, and this sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Maracle is unflinching in her portrayal of the hardship faced by this First Nations village, and, by extension, First Nations people in Canada. Through Stacey’s thought process, and also through the voice of Raven, Maracle is critical largely of “white town” and colonialism, but also at times critical of the villagers who seem caught in limbo; who wish to keep their old ways without acknowledging the threat of the tides of change sweeping over them and washing them away. There is hope in Stacey, who comes to serve as a bridge between cultures, but it is only a glimmer. The oftentimes bleak truths of the story are tempered with the innate sense of humour the villagers possess. It allows them to move through the many tragedies of the story with a certain amount of grace. I believe it’s an important book that invites readers, particularly white readers, to ask ourselves how we’ve been complicit in the devastation felt by First Nations people, and how we can do better.
From the opening pages: “Change is serious business–gut-wrenching, really. With humans it is important to approach it with great intensity. Great storms alter earth, mature life, rid the world of the old, ushering in the new. Humans call it catastrophe. Just birth, Raven crowed. Human catastrophe is accompanied by tears and grief, exactly like the earth’s, only the earth is less likely to be embittered by grief. Still, Raven was convinced that this catastrophe she planned to execute would finally wake the people up, drive them to white town to fix the mess over there.”