As an exercise in communicating a sense of the Canadian north and the flavour of twentieth-century Native life as tasted by a twelve- year-old boy, it is hard to imagine how this book could be bettered. The photographs are ravishing in a low-key way. You can almost smell the sunbaked rocks and moss of the Canadian Shield, the lake water, the campfire flames, and the muskeg. The cool grey light, the clouds of the wide skies, the look of the shoreline, all have a marvellous subliminal effect as the reader follows Matthew (of English, Scottish, Irish, French, Cree, and Chipewyan ancestry) through a week with his mother's family.
Some didacticism is inevitable, of course, and the text is notably sanitized. We are told that Lake Athabasca has "pure air and pure water" but there's no mention of mercury poison and acid rain elsewhere, and about "the respect that most Native people have for the land, water, and animals", with no mention of the over-fishing and clearcutting that European commercial pressures have caused in some Native areas. Nor is alcoholism, solvent inhalation, or welfare dependency mentioned. There is a passing reference to "government, churches, and boarding schools", and a startling statement, just dropped in passing, that "in 1792.nearly 90 per cent of the Chipewyans died, of diseases brought by European settlers and of starvation." Yet the main thrust of the book tells how Matthew learned to make bannock over a campfire, cast for fish ("Although the fish weren't biting, he enjoyed it"), set nets for lake trout and jackfish ("Matthew wished he could play his Sega Game Gear for a while"), and prepared the catch for the smoke house ("It was hard to cut the meat away from the bones. Matthew felt frustrated"), played traditional games ("He had to be very alert and fast to guess who had the sticks"), and took part in the singing, dancing, and drumming around the big Treaty Day fire.
The mixture of text and illustration captures the twelve-year- old mentality, the combination of surliness and enthusiasm, with lovely accuracy. You finish the book envying Matthew, not only for his heritage but for his mother, the perceptive and slyly humorous-as well as startlingly beautiful-author.