Recently I was railing to my patient partner against some writer whose short stories were too consistent from sentence to sentence, by which I meant that there was no variety of style. Consistency of quality is, however, an obvious virtue. Still, who gives a shit if a few of the sentences in Waubgeshig Rice’s Legacy are clumsy and distracting? For one thing, there are other sentences that are beautiful and powerful. Also, some of the dialogue is written with language and cadence so perfect that it sounds in your head like the characters are speaking there, like the words they are saying never really needed the page anyway, it’s just that the page was the only way to get them to you. But the real reason we, Rice’s readers or potential readers, should not give a shit about the inconsistent quality of Rice’s sentences is the importance of Rice’s story.
There are two sentences I think of when I think about story. One is Joan Didion’s assertion that, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The other sentence is Thomas King’s “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.”
If “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are,” then we are limited by the stories that we have heard about other people and each person is and all peoples are limited by the stories that are told about them.
What is the story that I, a white settler who has spent his whole life on the Traditional Territories of the Mississaugas of the New Credit, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat, grew up hearing about Indigenous people? What is the story that I, a settler whose mother’s family arrived in the Greater Toronto Area circa 1815, grew up hearing about First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples?
Trouble with drinking. Poverty. Victims of racism and structural racism. The cultures were dead, or nearly dead. Almost all of them. I’d read The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, a play about an Indigenous woman written by the son of Ukranian immigrants. I’d read some Thomas King books other than The Truth About Stories. I’d read Joseph Boyden and I’d taught, pretty ineffectively, Thompson Highway’s plays Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing and The Rez Sisters. When students asked me about Native experience in Canada, I had to acknowledge my titanic ignorance. King’s 2012 book The Inconvenient Indian was a gift in this department. So were all the other books that I mentioned above (with the possible exception of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe), but I didn’t have the foundational knowledge to allow me to really take much from them other than a feeling of empathy for the peoples who shared this land with me.
Around April or May of 2014, I was asked to teach a Native Studies credit, a grade 9 class called “Expressing Aboriginal Cultures.” I had a lot to learn before September. At the first professional development session I attended, I got a complex lesson. Elder Dr. Duke Redbird was explaining to me the relationship between the Seven Grandfather Teachings and the fruit forest and I didn’t get what he was saying, but I thought I did so I was interjecting eagerly. Patiently, he pushed past my misunderstanding. Eventually, I was quiet enough to listen properly and to understand that I had, at first, misunderstood and that therefore my earlier interjections had totally missed the mark. I started wishing to apologize, but I couldn’t find the courage. That exchange taught me to tread carefully, and reminded me that I knew nearly nothing. I started listening and learning.
I am still listening and learning and I have a long long long way to go. A lifetimes worth, at least—centuries worth—that I would like to learn.
Look, I know I’m supposed to be talking about Legacy. One thing I have learned, though, is the importance of situating yourself, of self-identifying, and giving other people the chance to do this. I need you, Waubeshig Rice, and you, Dear Reader, to know that I am a babe in the woods here. I’ve been told, Mr. Rice, that my ancestors were taught by your ancestors to live on this continent, to live in the Great Lakes Region specifically--miigwetch to your ancestors. Funny that here I am now learning from you, or at least your book. So maybe babe in the woods is a useful cliché looked at from that perspective. As long as you understand, Reader, that by woods I do not mean to imply an untended, wild or unknown woods, just a woods unfamiliar to me, now, and at one time unfamiliar to my ancestors.
Legacy is about the Gibson siblings, Eva, Stanley, Maria, Norman and Edgar. The book starts with Eva in Toronto in 1989. The narrative reveals that three years earlier her parents were killed in a car accident, hit by a drunk driver. Eva is studying at the University of Toronto, an act that requires considerable resilience. She is homesick for Birchbark, a fictional reserve off the highway between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, but she also faces harsh prejudice and a feeling of alienation: “Eva was a foreigner on these streets. Although people like her ancestors had navigated the rivers, streams and hills around what came to be known as Lake Ontario for thousands of years, she always felt uncomfortable and out of place in the city.” Eva has resolved, however, “to only return home for good once she got her Law degree.”
We go with Eva to an Introduction to Canadian Politics class and the instructor seems like a parody of both a bad instructor and a racist Canadian, so extreme are his perspectives.
Because Eva is “one of the few brown faces in the class and the only Native student, as far as she knew,” the professor sees her as “a resource he could exploit to verify everything in the books from which he drew all his course material.” The day’s lesson, looking at “some of the fringe groups that benefited from” the Charter of Rights and freedoms—“immigrants, Natives, and other people not necessarily at the forefront of building this country”—is obviously problematic, at least in its framing. The professor is upset about Section 25, which he quotes:
The guarantee in this Charter of certain rights and freedoms shall not be construed so as to abrogate or derogate from any Aboriginal treaty or other rights or freedoms that pertain to the Aboriginal peoples of Canada including any rights or freedoms that have been recognized by the Royal Proclamation of October 17, 1763; and any rights or freedoms that now exist by way of land claims agreements or may be so acquired.
Rather than using Section 25 as an opportunity to acknowledge the fact that all Canadians are “Treaty People”—an idea that I don’t remember enjoying much vogue in the late ’eighties—the day’s lesson is an attack, an obvious act of violence. The instructor badgers Eva about the “advantages” she has had, including not having to pay taxes and receiving financial support to attend university. He asks if it isn’t just time for her people—by which he means all First Nations, Metis and Inuit people—to “get over it.”
This instructor is one of the many teachers a reader will meet on their way through Legacy, but he is the only one that bothers me. I am torn between feeling like he is too extreme to be possible, that he is too much your racist uncle to be an instructor at a University, and the feeling that his racism seems too likely and too accurate.
This instructor commits the first act of violence against Eva, and it is awful. The second act of violence Eva faces is at the end of the first chapter when a man Eva meets in a bar murders her. So, the remaining Gibson siblings are left to deal in their different ways with two tragedies: the loss of their parents and the loss of Eva. Eva’s younger brother, Stanley, resolves to follow in Eva’s footsteps and succeed where Eva was not allowed to. Eva’s younger sister, Maria, has issues with substance abuse, but begins to learn traditional knowledge from an aunt, which helps her change directions. Norman has drinking problems and is unemployed, but his life is saved by his eldest brother Edgar, who not only pulls Norman from the lake Norman is trying to drown in, but starts Norman’s recovery by sharing his knowledge of traditional Anishinaabe practices. Edgar, father, husband and patriarch of the Gibson family after the loss of his parents, is the furthest along the road to reclaiming the traditions that were threatened by Residential Schools and other mechanisms of the Canadian colonial project. Edgar is a youth worker in Birchbark and at a detention centre in Sudbury.
Rice’s story of the Gibson family’s resilience and healing is a much more complex story than are statistics or the dominant narratives that were available to me as I grew up. “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” Legacy is one of an ever-increasing number of stories that reminds settlers of the consequences of colonialism for the first peoples and first cultures of this continent that many of us love. It demands our empathy and is, therefore, part of the project of reconciling the colonizers of this continent and our hosts.
What about, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” though?
Every culture I know is built on stories. The Judeo-Christian tradition has a book or two from which people draw stories vital to the lives of various cultures. The Anishinaabe people in Legacy share Anishinaabe stories and Anishinaabe knowledge between generations, and they do it despite attempts by colonizers to replace their stories and knowledge with Judeo-Christian stories and knowledge. It is not surprising to say that if you can prevent a culture’s stories and knowledge from being shared, that is if you kill the stories and knowledge, you kill the culture. There are many stories, the stories in Legacy are among them, that suggest that if you kill a culture, you may also kill some of the people of that culture.
In Norman’s case, Anishinaabe teachings are life saving. In a less direct way, they are probably life saving for Maria, too. In Edgar’s case, the ceremonies he learns help him to live in a good way in the face of so much grief and tragedy, never mind the deep frustration of seeing Eva’s murderer let off with a sentence that seems criminally lenient. Stanley is the only surviving sibling who, by the beginning of the book’s final chapter, seems without substantial connection to Anishnaabe ceremonies or other traditional practices. He does have a Master’s Degree, though, and is on contract with the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa. Each character’s life and choices, anyone’s life and choices, are tied up with the stories they are telling to and about themselves.
Hold on. I want to talk about the ending, so I suppose that this is your spoiler alert. I’ll try to talk about it so that I make my point but I don’t take from you the potential pleasure of reading the end yourself. Deal?
Each of the first five chapters follows a Gibson sibling for a day or two, and each of their stories is augmented by flashbacks. The chapters are, in order: “Eva: Winter 1989”; “Stanley: Summer 1991”; “Maria: Spring 1993”; “Norman: Fall 1995”; and “Edgar: Summer 1997.” The sixth and final chapter of the book is titled “Mark: Winter 1998.”
Mark is the man who murdered Eva in the first chapter.
What is done to Mark in the final chapter and who does it is, I would argue, intimately connected to which narratives each of the Gibson siblings has chosen as the dominant narrative in their life. The ending of Legacy, as is so often the case, hints at what the author believes about the narratives we “tell ourselves in order to live.”
I’m in the middle of reading Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie and there is this line in that book that is relevant to what I’m talking about. A settler character in Indian Killer, Aaron, is trying to find a lost brother, a brother who he suspects is dead. The narrator says of this searching settler, “He needed some kind of ceremony in which to express his grief, but he was without ceremony. Without the ability to mourn properly, Aaron could only steep in his anger.”
LEE SHEPPARD publishes fiction weekly on his blog, Not Know, Notice. He is a teacher at West End Alternative Secondary School in Toronto where he has developed and currently teaches two project-based courses: ReelLit a film-studies and video production program and The West Enders, a creative writing and illustrating program that produces an eponymous illustrated literary journal. He was a contributing editor of the literary magazine Pilot and he writes book reviews for The Rusty Toque.
Monthly reviews of poetry and fiction.