Saturday, August 25, 2012

Born With a Tooth

by Joseph Boyden

Sometimes approaching a new writer through his most acclaimed work, and then working backwards to his earliest published writing can be disappointing.  Having read The Savage Detectives and 2666, I've found that everything else written by Roberto Bolaño has been not disappointing, but diminished.  I wondered if the same would happen with Boyden when I started into Born With A Tooth, his collection of short stories which was published before Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce solidified his place in contemporary Canadian literature.

I needn't have worried - the stories in here are wonderful.  There are thirteen of them, divided almost evenly into four sections, each given a compass direction and a theme (East = Labour, South = Ruin, West = Running, and North is saved for Home).  As with his other writing, these stories are almost exclusively written from an Aboriginal perspective, and tell of the challenges faced by Northern Native communities in Canada, and of the people who either stay in them, or those that have left.

Through this book, we hear from characters like a homeless Native man living in Toronto who witnesses some awful things one night, a woman who leaves her young children to fly south with a pilot she quickly learns she doesn't even like, another woman who works at the Bingo Hall her late husband railed against, and a woman who fronts Canada's longest-lasting (and probably only) all-girl Native punk band.  The last four stories, in the 'North' section, tell aspects of the same story, of the suicide of a young woman who left her reserve to attend college, from four different perspectives - her uncle (the reserve drunk), her younger brother (a gas-sniffing troublemaker), her grandfather (thought to be one hundred years old), and the priest sent to the reserve from Toronto (who most definitely does not understand his congregation, their culture, or what his role within it should be).  One story, 'Bearwalker', which tells the story of a shape-shifter who terrorises his girlfriend and his best friend, was so gripping and thrilling that I wanted to stay on an airplane and finish it.

These stories are funny, heart-breaking, and in all ways, very strong.  Boyden portrays the verities of Native culture and living, but beyond that, he is a damn good writer.

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