The Kiss of the Fur Queen

by Tomson Highway,
310 pages,
ISBN: 0517707926

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First Novels - Elvis and the Shaman

Another impressive debut is Kiss of the Fur Queen (Doubleday, 320 pages, $32.95 cloth) by acclaimed playwright Tomson Highway. The book seduces with magic and legend: from the opening chapter, we are drawn into a world at once ordinary and extraordinary. In 1951, Abraham Okimasis becomes the first Native to win the Trapper's Festival Dog Sled Race. In keeping with tradition, he is kissed by the festival's Fur Queen, and a photo is taken. Abraham's two sons will later carry this photo with them like a talisman. The Fur Queen is beautiful, but sly-an alluring shaman. Her presence in various guises throughout the novel-"a woman in a theatre, a drunk in the street, a pregnant mother, a rape victim"-provides a surreal element, a sense that inexplicable forces are at work beneath the mundane surface, forces that are sometimes dangerous, sometimes protective, and always powerful.

For the Fur Queen is more than a Trickster figure, "a comic, clownish sort of character" whose role it is "to teach us about the nature and meaning of existence on the planet Earth". As Highway himself has said: "Everywhere Jeremiah and Gabriel Okimasis go they are haunted by the presence of this mysterious woman.... She seems to be protecting them and watching over them, and as one of them approaches death, he sees this woman in his subconscious and we realize that the Fur Queen is actually the Goddess."

The novel is largely autobiographical: two Cree brothers, whose idyllic childhood in no way prepares them for the harsh realities, are sent away at a very young age to a residential school in Winnipeg. Their names are changed (Champion becomes Jeremiah, Ooneemeetoo becomes Gabriel); they are forbidden to speak Cree; they are sexually abused by a priest. Highway's father actually was the first Native man to win the dog sled race; he was kissed by the Fur Queen; his sons did grow up with the photograph. Highway, like Jeremiah, was a concert pianist before he became a playwright; his brother, Rene, like Gabriel, was a successful dancer before he died of AIDS. But none of this is really the point. It is Highway's passionate blending of his personal family mythology with the larger Cree mythology from which it stems that makes the novel so successful. He shifts back and forth between the Cree world and the alien world in which the brothers find themselves-a traumatic transition from a world of nature, poetry, and myth to one of urban linearity, commercialism, "standard" education, and racism. However, Kiss of the Fur Queen is no political treatise. Instead, it is a celebration of a Cree family, a language, a way of being in the world-all of which persist despite the odds.


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