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Kiss of the Fur Queen

Reviewed: July 14, 2006
By: Thomson Highway
Publisher: Doubleday, Canada
310 pages, $22.00

Thomson Highway’s 1998 novel tells the story of the Okimasis brothers, Champion (or Jeremiah) and Ooneemeetoo (Gabriel). The boys are born on the Eemanapiteepitat reserve in Manitoba, the sons of Abraham Okimasis.

Abraham is a trapper and a champion musher. In fact, the novel opens on the day that he wins the Millington Cup World Championship Dog Derby, thus becoming the first Indian to do so in its 28 year history. He did it as an anniversary present for his wife, Mariesis, who was even then in the process of giving birth to Champion.

Life on the reserve isn't easy, and Highway has peopled the place with an assortment of fallible mortals, with lots of quirks and warts, but it is their place,and we are left with a clear impression of the boys' idyllic childhood, a way of life that Highway has since fleshed out in a a series of children's picture books.

Then came mission school, and took all that away. In a poignant, but familiar, narrative, Highway relates how the boys were sent away to school by their parents, how it cost them their language, their culture, their sense of who they really were and their connection to their roots.

It cost more than that, for the strict discipline and unrelenting fear-based evangelism of the Catholic Fathers and Sisters  seemed designed to the make the boys, and all the other students at the school, feel worthless and undeserving. To see God and not the DEVIL after they died it was necessary for them to give up all that they had been and become what they were told to become.

Jeremiah and Gabriel would spend a good portion of their adult lives trying to be as white as possible.

The Fur Queen of the title is a mythical figure which follows the boys through the book. There was a beautiful human Fur Queen at the race that Abraham won, and the boys take a picture of her with them to school, but the real presence of the Fur Queen is found in the hallucinatory passage that leads to  Jeremiah's birth, and later on, in passages where both boys attempt to redefine themselves.

At school Jeremiah, following in the footsteps of Highway himself, discovers the piano and the world of classical music. In his stage act Highway speaks lovingly of music and how much it has helped him to define himself. Whether he also had a battered accordion in his preschool life I do not know, but those scenes read like a memoir.

Gabriel, like Highway's real-life brother, discovers dance. How much of the rest of his life is patterned on a real model I don't know, but it is true that Highway's brother eventually died of complications related to AIDS.

Left open is the question of whether Gabriel practiced gay sex as part of his genetic makeup, or as a reaction to the violation that was forced upon him at the school. Each new sexual conquest, each new vice that he embraces (and he sees them as vices, which is why I put it that way), seem to be part of a revenge on the system and on the white people who had harmed him as a child.

It is through music and dance, the beat of the drum, chanting, and the rhythm of the body in movement that the young men do, eventually, after a great many hard knocks, find their way back to themselves, and reestablish their own relationship. The very spiritual scene at the end of the story resolves a lot of the despair I felt while reading it.

I confess to being of two minds about this book. Highway has recycled some of the material in here as a satirical part of his stage routine and, for me at least, this weakened what would have been some powerful criticisms of the residential school system and the extremely conservative Roman Catholicism to which he and his characters were exposed as children.

I don't want to make excuses for any of that. The history of residential schools on every continent, including those in Europe, is full of bad dealings and abuse. Real life was never as congenial as life at Hogwarts, with or without the added tensions brought on by the mixing of races and tribes.

All of that having been said, Kiss of the Fur Queen is  a powerful story and no doubt has as much to tell us now as when it first appeared in 1998.

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