A Short History of Indians in Canada
By Thomas King, HarperCollins,232 pages, $24.95 (hc)
Thomas King's new collection of short stories should be a slow read. These are small stories, so readers should take time in between each one to reflect on the compact commentaries and deft images that each story contains.
The stories in this volume cover a lot of ground. King touches on the history of displacement, racism and stereotyping, racist government policy, marriage and relationships, and Native-white relations, among other topics.
The title story is the best story. "A Short History of Indians in Canada" centres around a sleepless white businessman who watches flying Indians crash into Toronto office towers (like the real-life migratory birds who are attracted on their overnight flights by the light from the buildings).
Although wrapped in a comic image, this story reverberates with incredible sadness over changes to Native tradition, the shiny attraction of Western consumer society, and for everything that has been lost. It's a small gem of a story that touches the reader on a deeply emotional level.
"Tidings of Comfort and Joy" sets the reader on edge, building a creepy feeling until finally reversing itself in a surprising way. It's successful because the edgy feeling doesn't obscure the author's comment on how non-Native people can sometimes view Native friends as objects for collection, or, in the case of nearby Native communities, as personal petting zoos.
"The Baby in the Airmail Box" is a comic take on the adoption of Native children by non-Native people. Like most of King's writing, the humor is a thin veneer that barely masks the writer's rage.
"Coyote and the Enemy Aliens" reminds readers about the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. King's use of the trickster Coyote as narrator and his use of a circular narrative style resembles the oral tradition. That circularity is important. As King shows, internment of people based on race has happened before, and it could happen again - perhaps to Native people, and especially in light of post-9/11 security measures.
Other tales stand out. "Haida Gwaii" and "Little Bombs" are understated examinations on relationships. "Not Enough Horses" brings Native tradition into the modern world, as a suitor offers a snowblower and a reclining chair as offerings to the father of the woman he wants to marry. "Rendezvous" is a comment on environmental degradation and the human laziness that allows it to happen. "The Garden Court Motor Hotel", which is based on the Iroquois creation story (a tale King, a Cherokee, returns to a lot), points out that we don't recognize our stories even when they fall on our heads. And "Bad Men Who Love Jesus" is three pages of sheer comic brilliance.
King, a professor of Native literature and creative writing at the University of Guelph, has had highs and lows in his writing career. His 1993 novel Green Grass, Running Water (which was nominated for a Governor General's Award) remains a classic, and his 2003 collection of essays The Truth About Stories was a deliciously layered examination of the identities we create with the stories we tell. But King's foray into populist writing -he wrote the detective story DreadfulWater Shows Up under the pen name of Hartley GoodWeather in 2001-was formulaic and predictable.
A Short History of Indians in Canada is King at his best. Sly, precise, and measured, these stories are quick punches that deliver genuine payoffs.