Review of Porcupines and China Dolls

Robert Arthur Alexie


Richard Van Camp

This year's National Aboriginal Day found me reading one of the most important books I will ever read in this lifetime. Porcupines and China Dolls by Robert Arthur Alexie, ladies and gentlemen, is First Nations literature at its finest.

I suspect the fury and outrage over the hands of we've been dealt as First Nations people, that seethe on every page of this novel, is exactly what provoked James Welch into writing Winter in the Blood, Sherman Alexie into writing The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Adrian C. Louis into writing Skins. I know for myself, it's exactly what made me write my first novel, The Lesser Blessed.

Porcupines and China Dolls is a story about a people, the NWT's Teetl'it Gwich'in, at the crossroads of their very existence. The first 30 pages of this book will remove any doubt from the ignorant who don’t know about the murderous efficiency of the Federal government and the Catholic residential school administration and their enforcers, namely the priests and nuns, as they declared war on Native culture across Canada. The next 70 pages show the continuing legacy of those residential school survivors 30 years later as the Gwich'in adults drink, pass out, party, and wake up hung-over to do it all over again. It's not pretty. In fact, it's a living nightmare: suicide, rape, elder neglect, drinking, STD's -- the list goes on. What breaks this cycle is when one of our protagonists, Jake Noland, sees Tom Kinney, a former priest at the residential school and now an employee at a fur auction house, on television.

What does Jake do? Jake breaks and tells his lover, Mary, everything about what happened 30 years ago under the hairy hands of Tom Kinney. Jake tells her and he tells his aunt Bertha, a community counsellor. Chief David hears about Jake's disclosure, and he finally has the courage to come forth and tell his own story. Soon, other men come forward and this catapults the entire community into breaking the silence and pressing charges against Tom Kinney. It also begins many awakenings on a personal level for many of our lead characters, but also for the entire community. In short, Jake's confession begins the journey towards the survival and renewal of the wounded Gwich'in Nation.

There's so much magic in this superbly written first novel that I'm going to burn somebody's house down if this isn't awarded the Governor General's Award and the Giller Prize. To the lady who asked, "It isn't depressing stuff about residential school, is it?" well, yes it is, but it's more than that. It's about the endurance and hope of a nation within Canada who have survived a legacy of genocide. There's also a love story in here that'll steal your breath in the last scene. So, if you hang in there, you’ll have tears of joy mingling with tears of sorrow. You'll also walk away wiser, humbler and with a greater respect for all aboriginal people across Canada.

Hats off to Stoddart for publishing this timeless novel. Hats off to Robert Arthur Alexie who had the courage and determination to write a testament to his people and an indictment on Canadian history. Mr. Alexie was Chief of the Teetl'it Gwich'in in the 1990's and later served as the chief negotiator and vice president of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, so this is coming from one who knows.

I heard recently at the Living History Awards Ceremony in Yellowknife that Mr. Alexie is working on two more novels and, suddenly, my life is worth living again.

Oh. If you're a bit lost on the title, Porcupines and China Dolls were what the Gwich'in children looked like after the Catholic priests and nuns sheared their hair off and dumped delousing powder all over them. The title also captures one of the many heartbreaking lines in the book recounted by Angie, a mother of two who are given up for adoption. Angie is also a survivor of the Aberdeen residential school and multiple rapes. She's recounting one of many horrible nights of her life: "No one heard the little china doll that night, but if she were given a voice, it would've sounded like a million porcupines screaming in the dark."

This book will initiate more healing than any of us will ever know. It's hard but good medicine. Please read it. Mahsi.

Porcupines and China Dolls, by Robert Arthur Alexie
Published by Stoddart Publishing, 286 pages, ISBN 0-7737-3305-1
© 2002 Richard Van Camp
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