Book Review: Ravensong

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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.”

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Image via Flickr user Tamaki Sono

I came here to write about choosing gratitude. About how, even though things aren’t perfect, I am grateful to have a home in town to live in for the winter. I’m grateful for running water, friends within walking distance. I’m grateful that self-care will be a little bit easier now.

But scrolling through my Facebook feed and reading about First Nation’s people taking peaceful and powerful stands to protect their land, their rights, and their water, in North Dakota and, here in Canada, at Muskrat Falls, I feel like my little gratitudes are so meaningless. Talking about my small life, about walking to the grocery store or watching the ice form on the river, is so useless. There are people out there right now, mothers with their children in their arms, facing down cops in riot gear. Tear gas and sound cannons and military vehicles meant to intimidate. My triumphs and problems, though large in my life, are so insignificant in comparison.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed. I could expand my view to include all of the people fleeing their war-torn homes. All of the people who are being hit hardest by hurricanes, floods, droughts, record high temperatures. All of the people starving while we send perfectly edible food to landfills. Dead zones in the ocean. Mass extinction. I could go on, and on. And on. I could throw up my hands in despair because how could I or anyone else ever have any effect on all of this? It feels out of control, too big, unmanageable.

So I come back to the small. I come back to what I can do today. I can amplify the voices demanding change. I can add my voice to it. I can donate money and supplies. I can educate myself about the damage of colonialism, capitalism, misogyny, rape culture. I can challenge all of my own biases and privileges. I can raise my children to be aware of these things, too. I can raise them to ask uncomfortable questions, to call out wrongs when they see them, to be compassionate and generous and thoughtful human beings. I can hope.

If we all practice taking these small actions each day, if we all take them together, maybe they’ll add up to something greater than all of us. Maybe they’ll add up to the massive change we need, for the planet and for all of us living on it. My small gratitudes don’t seem quite so insignificant, when they go hand in hand with these actions. I am grateful to have my eyes open.