The Moccasin Maker

by E. Pauline Johnson, A. LaVonne Ruoff, A. LaVonne Ruoff, A. Lavonne Ruoff,
272 pages,
ISBN: 0608007293

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Brief Reviews - Anthologies
by Carole Gerson

Around the turn of the century, Emily Pauline Johnson (1861-1913) was Canada's best-known woman author. Her writings and public recitals drew on both sides of her parentage: her English-born mother schooled her in genteel manners and mainstream English literature, while the traditions of her mostly Mohawk father provided the commitment to First Nations culture and Native rights that motivated much of her work and educated her audiences as they were being entertained. Both an ardent Canadian nationalist and a staunch British Imperialist, as many English-speaking Canadians were wont to be during her era, Johnson expressed considerable antipathy towards the U.S. "The Yankee to the south of us must south of us remain," declares her 1897 poem, "Canadian Born". Although much of her writing career depended upon American market magazines, Johnson consistently maintained an identity that was Canadian as well as Mohawk, advocating Native values while waving the Union Jack.

If Johnson were to return today, she would be appalled to find herself included in such reference books as the Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995) and Native American Writers of the United States (volume 175 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography). Although the current First Nations outlook erases the 49th parallel, such was not the case for Johnson. The latest edition of The Moccasin Maker (University of Oklahoma Press, 266 pages, $20.95 paper) exemplifies the extent to which the American dragnet quest for literary forebears has ensnared a Canadian nationalist.

A selection of a dozen pieces that had originally appeared in periodicals, The Moccasin Maker was published posthumously in 1913 with elegiac introductions by noted Canadian authors Gilbert Parker and Charles Mair. The book includes some of Johnson's most accomplished and striking prose: her lengthy autobiographical memoir, "My Mother"; her assertion of Native spirituality in her essay, "A Pagan in St. Paul's Cathedral"; and two stories dramatizing the resistance of mixed-race women to the stereotyping of white patriarchy, "A Red Girl's Reasoning" and "As It was in the Beginning". However, unlike her popular collection of poems, Flint & Feather, and her locally cherished Legends of Vancouver, The Moccasin Maker quickly slipped out of print.

Today, interest in the intersections of gender and race, along with the amazing upsurge of First Nations literary activity, bring fresh relevance to Johnson as a major figure in Canadian literary and cultural history. Canadians are indebted to the University of Arizona Press for its 1987 edition of The Moccasin Maker, with A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff's commentary stressing Johnson's literary significance as a woman and an Indian. I would like to extend similar gratitude to the University of Oklahoma Press for currently reissuing Ruoff's edition, were it not for the process of appropriation illustrated by the changes made to the promotional text on the cover. Whereas the Arizona edition acknowledged Johnson's position in "turn-of-the-century Canada", the Oklahoma edition is packaged "to place Johnson and her work solidly within the genres of American Indian and women's fiction". Ironically, Johnson foresaw this possibility. Her poem, "Canada", images her country as a secure ship of state, bearing "Aloft, her Empire's pennant" while successfully navigating a potentially dangerous geography: "North of her, ice and arctics; southward a rival's stealth". Johnson herself now seems to be the object of that very stealth she deplored nearly a century ago. 

Carole Gerson


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