Tough one to review. King explicitly states at the outset it will be his own personal approach to a topic that spans 500+ years, consists of hundreds if not thousands of independent tribes (not a heterogeneous group - call them First Nations, Aboriginals, Native Americans, or Indians, as he prefers), and is fraught with legal, political, tribal and even linguistic complexity that crosses and differs across borders.
He acknowledges that he is more comfortable with fiction, and that he won't be presenting a scholarly, historical account filled with facts.
And he doesn't. Yet - as the chapters mount (once the Hollywood chapter is out of the way), the facts he does present, welded together by anger and - if you're familiar with his fiction, this is no surprise - the surehandedness of a seasoned story-teller, are as or more compelling than if this was more rigorously footnoted.
And, he's Thomas King - he's got authorly, as well as Indian, credibility. So we can cut him some slack for the occasional lapse into cherry-picking and/or a feigned non-chalant irony that started to grate on me a bit.
He's not trying to persuade the reader to a particular point of view or a preferred solution. Still, the book is persuasive - even if it needs to be read in context with a lot of other fictional and non-fictional explorations of the topic.
Even if you're pretty up to date with Native history, you'll probably pick up a few tidbits here and there. What you won't find are any easy answers - because there just aren't any to be found.
When you're dealing with 500 years of messy, brutal colonization, and fundamentally two very different worlds on a collision course, is there any definitive way to make sense of it? Don't we all have to grapple with it in our own way, coming at it from our own unique perspective - either as colonist or colonized?
For me, on this topic, the question is: what happens after "I'm sorry"? How do we move forward, and to where?
I'm surprised King didn't write about the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (he was covering a LOT of ground and being as even-handed as possible in his focus on US v. Canada; I wonder if some honing in on one or the other might have been beneficial?). Also, in a subsequent edition - if there is to be one - I imagine he will add commentary about the Idle No More movement (which really got going around the time this was first published) - I'd like to hear his take on both things.
As a digression, a month or so ago we had an event at work that brought together leaders from a bunch of First Nations groups. The event started with a brief welcome to "our" offices, then we turned it over to a Cree elder, who performed a smudging ceremony. She translated her prayers into English. She called on "the spirits of all the animals, the birds, the insects, the rocks and our ancestors of this land of the Mississaugas of the New Credit
" - the band that currently has an outstanding land claim on the very ground on which we were standing. Subtle but powerful moment. We thought we
were welcoming them.
Our colossal arrogance - entirely unintentional - but still.
This is where King leaves off ... with the land, and who has it, who wants it, who "owns" it.
It's messy. And the only way through it, I think, is honest, authentic dialogue. This book is part of that dialogue.
Still, that dialogue is not going to fix anything. It won't erase the past or heal it. I'm not even sure it can carve out a constructive future.
But is there anything else?