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
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.