Robert Arthur Alexie: Porcupines and China Dolls

While watching the opening ceremonies to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver I really had the urge to revisit Canadian literature.  I so completely enjoyed the reading I did as a member of the 2009 Shadow Giller Jury, and despite the several comments from people who didn’t like the ultimate winner (of both the Shadow and the Real Giller), I still think we picked not only the best book on the list but also one of the best books published last year.  I have a handful of unread Canadian books on my shelf, and they all looked great.  Ultimately, though, I chose to satisfy my craving with Porcupines and China Dolls (2009), one of KevinfromCanada’s best books of 2009.

Gift copy courtesy of KevinfromCanada.

Porcupines and China Dolls has an interesting publishing history.  I don’t know enough about it to go into any detail here, but it wasn’t first published in 2009.  Stoddard Publishing issued the book in 2002, and then swiftly fell under.  According to KfC, the book was then published by Penguin in 2004.  And the version I read has a copyright date of 2009, by Theytus Books.

On the one hand, it’s a shame that this book is having such hard luck with publishers.  The topic is not only interesting, it is important.  I don’t believe that enough is written and certainly not enough is read regarding the abuses to the indigenous people of America.  What we hear is often without nuance and it seems most of us pass it off as something of the past.  It is heartbreaking to read about the abuse, but I think it is also important to read the reasoning behind some of it.  It is often pure madness!  And pure oppression under the cloak of noblesse oblige.  To read how lawmakers and judges swindled the natives out of their land — honestly, a fascinating case is Johnson v. M’Intosh where the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that private individuals could not purchase land from Native Americans.  Why?  Because the Native Americans never owned it in the first place.  It was “discovered,” and therefore claimed, by Europeans.  It is a fascinating opinion, and I for one never knew exactly when John Marshall was being serious and when he was being ironic.

Often just as shocking are the attempts to atone for past mistakes, attempts to help the indiginouse people “rise.”  This book deals with one such catastrophic failure.  For over a century (1880s to 1980s) Canada had set up residential schools for the indigenous children.  Under the law, these children were removed from their homes for years and forced to speak English — in fact, punished if they spoke anything else.  In those years they were violently stripped of any identity.  When their term was up, they’d go back to their homes (unless they perished in the intervening years) as shells.

The book opens up with a brief prologue introducing one of these shells.  A man is wandering around a forest in Canada’s Northwest Territories:

After what seemed like a lifetime, he looked again to the sky and asked the question.  Six billion people must’ve looked to the sky at one time or another.  Six billion people must’ve asked it at least once in their lives.  Why?  Why me?

He waited for an answer and was not disappointed.  Six billion people must’ve heard it at least once in their lives: silence.

Then the story introduces a topic it is highly concerned with: suicide.  All of the characters are constantly contemplating going to the woods, putting a gun in their mouth, and pulling the trigger.  This prologue ends with just that.

After this brief prologue, Alexie shows us some of the reasons behind this man’s suicide: he is empty, and most of that emptiness is a direct result of the abusive residential school he attended.  The first part of the novel (around 50 pages) was, in my opinion, the most successful section.  This section was a wonder to read because of Alexie’s clear, curt, and repetitive writing style.  In it, Alexie gives his reader the background to the “Blue People,” a group of Native Americans, and their experiences in the residential schools over the century.

Soon after, the first mission boat arrived in Aberdeen, and thirty-five children were herded out of the Blue Mountains and dragged off to mission school.  The People have no words in their language for mission school.  The closest anyone has come to it is “hellhole,” but that’s beside the point.  The point is that years later, twenty-four of the thirty-five would return.  More importantly, eleven wouldn’t.

I loved the history and I loved the set up to the book, which eventually focuses in on two men, James Nathan and Jake Noland.  After this first part, Alexie completely shifts the tone of the novel.  Instead of a somber reflection on the past, we get a gritty, lengthy look at the stripped down state of these men and their community.  There is constant intoxication leading to, or resulting from, or coinciding with sex.  Everyone seems to be looking at everyone’s crotches as they go get another drink.  It made my skin crawl, and I was completely disgusted — yet I think I understood what Alexie was doing.  It is, to say the least, effective.  And I don’t think it was over-the-top.

Above I said, “On the one hand, it is a shame that this book is having such hard luck with publishers.”  Well, now, on the other hand, the gritty second segment soon transitions, not that smoothly, into the central portion of the novel.  Here we discover that James and Jake, and many others, including the chief, were sexually abused by one of the priests who ran the residential school.  After thirty years, they have decided to stand together, make a public disclosure about the crime, and see that justice is done.  Interestingly, Alexie chooses to use an incredibly exaggerated tone during the pivotal scene (shown on the cover of my edition) where the two men and chief tell the town what has happened.  It took me immediately to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, where the narrator would describe things with a anti-lyrical, twelve-year-old-boy style.  And here are some examples from this book, each taken within just a few paragraphs of each other (and it was a fairly long section, reading like this throughout):

Jake started sinking into the floor, but James reached down and with an arm that looked like it belonged on Hulk Hogan, lifted him up from the steps of oblivion.

Mary Percy stood up and walked to the front and stood by her soon-to-be husband.  She looked at her lover with the nice ass, smiled and nodded.  Let’s rock ‘n’ roll.

People were almost blown off their feet.  Mary Percy grew fifty feet tall and almost burst out of her tight-fittin’ jeans.  Nothing was going to get by her and get to her man.  Not now ‘n not ever!

So Alexie is definitely playing close to some line here.  On one side is an oral style issuing from a chest full of rage, not even close to contained as it loses control and lets emotion and spirit and practically drunken energy fly.  On that side of the line, it is very effective.  But the other side of the line is a juvenile, antic style that distracts us from what is really going on, and can even offend us for misleading us into taking it seriously.  I kept rereading passages to see just whether and when the line was crossed.

I would like to believe the style was not the result of Alexie’s own rage, and especially that it was not the result of some juvenile style, but some other examples, from other sections where the tone was much more serious, have me thinking some of this was just bad judgment.  Here are some of those examples (again, these are not subsequent paragraphs and come from various spots in the book):

But he wouldn’t remember it.  Or would he?

He knew there was no changing the past.  At least not yet and maybe never.  Not unless the USS Enterprise time-traveled back from the future and Scotty beamed Captain Kirk down to pick him up in a valiant effort to change the course of history for his People.  He looked up and waited, but Kirk didn’t materialize out of thin air.

Cries.  Whimpers.  Same diff.

Now, despite the stylistic strangeness that makes the book feel a bit unbalanced, I found the book incredibly worthwhile.  I would be on the side of those publishers who push the book forward.  I would hope readers, initially put off by the apparent lack of judgment, would stop and consider just why the book is written in the way it is.  There’s a lot in here.  Though it sometimes flew well wide of the mark, when it hits its target, it is spectacular.

4 thoughts on “Robert Arthur Alexie: Porcupines and China Dolls

  1. From my perspective, this is a very fair and perceptive review, both in highlighting Alexie’s strengths and the challenges that some of his writing creates. It is a powerful book, not a pleasant one, and — on my second read — I found myself more sympathetic with some of that awkward language than I did the first time. I do think you are on the right track in wondering whether his own emotion got in the way of his prose (this book is, in fact, a fictional memoir — he experienced all that he writes about).

    Thanks for the reminder of the book — it is too soon for another read, but I do intend to go back to it again sometime in the future.

  2. Trevor says:

    There’s a lot to this book, Kevin, thanks so much for sending it to me — forgot to note that in the review and will correct that now. As a visceral read, I’m not sure I can think of many that beat it — and I think the style actually strengthens this part. It might be his anger and indignation coming through the way it does when a teen-age boy is indignant, but we certainly feel it. And then when it is tempered, it is all the more powerful.

    I wondered if it was based on some of his own experiences. What an awful experience . . .

  3. Alexie was chief of the Tetlit Gwich’in band and, in fact, helped negotiate their land claim. He knows this territory only too well and I must admit that background influenced my opinion of the book. We tend to think that those who were impacted by this disgraceful behavior have all died — it is even more sobering to consider that there are still those who actually experienced it. I admire him for making the decision to document the experience. I gather he is every bit as impressive when he makes a personal appearance and reads from this book. Your review is quite perceptive in noting that the first part is a narrative that sets the stage; I do think after the first 100 pages or so he lets his own experience take over (and I don’t think that is a bad thing). For me, the last third of the book may be both the most impressive and heart-breaking — just when the reader thinks there has been a breakthrough, Alexie shows us that the future does not unfold any better than the past.

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