Culture & Conversation

The ancestors live through stories

Celia's Song by Lee Maracle (Cormorant Books)

Celia’s Song by Lee Maracle (Cormorant Books)

Near the beginning of Lee Maracle’s new novel, Celia’s Song, we meet Gramma Alice, who “fictioned up a story just as her ancestors would have.” It is a charming way for the author, known to Canadian readers since 1993’s Ravensong, to claim the lineage of her own novel-writing.

Situating Celia’s Song within the long and venerable heritage of Sto:lo (Fraser River First Nations) culture, it also perfectly describes the story, which is about reclaiming the ways of the ancestors and using them to survive and thrive in a world dramatically different from the one they knew.

Celia, her sisters and parents live in her ancestral West Coast village, at the foot of a mountain that once provided their people with food, shelter, and spiritual sustenance – until they were weakened by disease and deception. Outsiders claimed the land and its resources, eventually using helicopters to chase down anyone who tried to climb the mountain’s steep flanks to collect kindling or shakes for a leaky roof. Celia lives alone in the house where her grandmother raised her, eating for comfort, mourning more than she realizes.

Maracle slowly introduces the reader to the extended community around Celia, each individual and each generation with their experiences, their memories, and their powers, spiritual or otherwise. When a crisis occurs that endangers the life of a child, they come together, using all their resources – including some that were half-forgotten. Each member of the community must search inside herself, face the traumas of the past and fears of the present, and recover or reinvent the ways of the ancestors and figure out how to use them in this much-changed world.

There is plenty of humour – a ghost who likes to smoke, a mischievous narrative mink – and plenty of suffering, too. The interplay of history and memory is satisfying. The stories people tell (and even the ones they don’t remember, which is where the mink comes in) reinforce, amplify, and illuminate historical details – the devastating flu of 1954, priests trading medicine for baptism during the smallpox epidemic caused by deliberately infected blankets, the burning of the forest where the people gathered their food and the terrible hunger that followed. But there are also memories of how the people lived, how they survived, and therein lie the threads that the women and their men take up and begin to weave anew.

The narrative is somewhat disorganized, with the characters appearing and disappearing in a way that feels more instrumental than natural. Shelley and Stella, who are at the centre of the turning-point crisis, appear once the groundwork of the plot has been laid and then simply disappear again as soon as they have triggered a series of changes. The arrival of Steve, the white doctor, is awfully opportune – a deus ex machina in fact, with lip service barely paid to his motivations for materializing in a Sto:lo village with his previous life very neatly tied up and left behind him. The very powerful battle between the heads of the two-headed snake becomes a mere metaphor, casually alluded to.

The story Maracle tells is one that makes intimate links between personal and cultural renewal, and illuminates the deep value of doing things “just as her ancestors would have.” That is part of its power. Another part is the sweet humanity of her characters, even the most damaged and damaging.

Near the end of the novel one of the characters muses, “Indians can’t seem to stop telling stories and they love hearing them.” It is one of the things all humans have in common.

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Elise Moser’s YA novel, Lily and Taylor, appeared from Groundwood Books. She is the editor of the anthology of Quebec Writing Competition-winning stories, Salut King Kong: New English Writing from Quebec, from Véhicule Press.


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