by Lee Maracle,
ISBN: 0889740445

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Life at a Distance
by Phil Hall

SOMETHING is wrong. It is 1954, and another epidemic is devastating West Coast reserves. This time it's influenza that's killing the weaker villagers; other times it has been smallpox, diphtheria, measles, tuberculosis - a history of infection leading back to the first arrival of white seafarers.

Stacey lives in one of the Native villages. She attends a white school in the adjoining white village. Her younger sister, Celia, is a budding visionary who sees olden days and ancestors recreated and speaking before her. Raven is nearby, arguing with Cedar about what must be done to save the Village, to heal rifts between Natives and whites.

As Stacey helps her mother and the other villagers fight the influenza, she comes to understand her people, their history, and the history of her village. Her awareness of whites also grows, as does her sense of difference. She will eventually go away to school, taking the spirit of her people with her. In the final chapter she is telling all of this to her son 25 years later.

Lee Maracle's social commentary in Ravensong is easy to agree with. Something is wrong and must be set right. She offers no new insights, though. Raven insists upon a mystical and actual bridge between cultures. Stacey chooses salvation by education. Raven's solution seems like a pipedream; Stacey's solution is a private one.

Here is a solid basis for an important, largely undramatized story. But some things are wrong here besides disease. This is a dreadfully written book - a penny dreadful. Its unrelentingty righteous melodrama appeals to our current concerns about Native integrity while distancing us from the dramatic realities of the characters. Almost every line of dialogue is preceded and/or followed by explanation, historical interpretation, or ponderous analysis of the machinations of the thinking behind the speech. Characters are finger puppets in a hand holding a pen whose nib is Raven's beak. And Raven is the author's vehicle of thesis.

Because a love note is intercepted by a teacher, a young classmate of Stacey's kills herself. A village woman shoots her old snake of a husband. A young Native man commits suicide. There are many burials because of the epidemic. Hard realities - but none of this comes off as real or touching. Attempts at humour and anguish are both strained and poorly acted (the director/author won't get off the stage). Maracle's narrative combines the methods of children's books with those of manifesto and dissertation. Thus, fictional vibrancy is lost.

When I find the phrase "sort of more like," or when I encounter such whoopee cushions as "raven, whose chin jutted straight out while she squawked" (chin?) I wonder what has been blinded in the editorial process. How is such a text supposed to engage us?

The nobility of this novel's subject and intentions is not enough to rescue it from the crude failings of its prose.


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