North Spirit

by Paulette Jiles,
288 pages,
ISBN: 0385254997

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A Culture on the Brink
by Wayne Grady

PAULETTE JILES WAS BORN in Blackwater, Missouri, in the Ozarks, in 1943, and since 1969 she has lived in Ontario, in the Canary Islands, in North Africa, British Columbia, and (most recently) Texas. Her second book of poems, Celestial Navigation, won the Governor General's Award and the Pat Lowther Award in 1984, and since then she has published sparingly but well: a new book by Jiles is always a significant event. Her books includes the novels The Late Great Human Road Show and Sitting in the Club Car Drinking Rum and Karma-Cola; a previous work of non-fiction, Cousins; and two superb collections of poems, short prose, and radio plays, Blackwater and Song to the Rising Sun.

North Spirit is a memoir of the 10 years Jiles spent in northern Ontario, helping people in Cree and Ojibway villages set up Native-language radio stations supplied to them by the CBC and, later, returning to some of those villages as a playwright -- in the opening section she is flying in a Twin Otter to Muskrat Dam with a pilot named Forever Seagull and an actor named Graham Greene. Through a series of flashbacks, meditations on such important themes as the nature of fire and cold, the structure of the Ojibway language (in which parts of the body are inanimate, but stones and stars and trees are animate), and the role of the storyteller (who "speaks out of the unadministrated world of the mind, where great forces grind against one another like tectonic plates"), Jiles presents us with a portrait of a culture that, in 1973, was already being eroded by such southern influences as alcohol, radio, teachers, Indian Affairs, television, and gasoline.

In 1973, that culture seemed poised between ruin and salvation, and watching it teeter is part of the fascination of reading this book. At a meeting between the white teachers and village elders in North Spirit Rapids (Jiles's composite village of the Anishnabe-Aski, or Spontaneously Created People), this conflict is clearly presented: the teachers want the village children to learn English, and how to wash themselves properly; the elder women know that it is more important for them to learn the language and legends of their ancestors, and how to repair a snowmobile. A tenuous -- and obviously doomed -- compromise is reached: "Several elder women signed and said they would come to the school and talk to the children in Anishnabe every day, if they could get somebody to look after the babies."

The essence of North Spirit is not really politics, however, although there is plenty of outrage in it. Jiles is above all a superb writer, a fine observer, and a crafter of intricate, web-like prose. Her characters are familiar, not stereotypical, her scenes are predictable -- meetings in the band office, the wild rice harvest -- but never contrived. There are always surprises. And she has a tremendous gift for evocation. To fly in a Twin Otter is to be "caught between two engines in a polyrhythmic crossfire of thunders." Walk with her along a path through the bush and you can smell the spruce and hear the rivers:

Lucy's gill nets were strung across an open rapids; wild, thundering ropes of white water. From the edges of this open water the ice was melting back; it was spring. It was not melting back evenly, but in rays and faults and loose slabs.

North Spirit is not an invasion, but an elucidation. Jiles is entirely aware that too many whites have ventured into too many villages and written too many books; hers is an exploration of the human as much as the northern spirit. In the end, of course, the two are one: in looking more deeply within she has arrived at a clearer representation of the world without, which is, after all, what the spirit is for.


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