By Waubgeshig Rice
Reviewed by Jorge Antonio Vallejos
Dynamite comes in small packages!
Have you heard the above saying before? It usually applies to people. I think of my five foot mom, a woman of colour, who doesn’t take shit from anyone when I hear that saying. But this saying can be applied to many things; in this case an eighty-five page collection of linked short stories by Ojibway writer Waubgeshig Rice: Midnight Sweatlodge.
The front cover of Rice’s book is a picture of a sweatlodge taken with a night vision lens. The tarp that usually covers the lodge is not there. What you see is the frame of the lodge: willow trees bent and tied together in a womb like structure. In the middle you see a pile of Grandfathers (rocks) that are integral for sweatlodge ceremonies.
The cover, with its blueish-grey image reminiscent of a sonogram, is speaking to the teaching of the sweatlodge being the womb of Mother Earth. It’s also showing the reader the transparency that follows once opening the book’s pages: stories of different peoples participating in ceremony and experiencing healing via the sharing of painful life stories.
Opening the pages of Midnight Sweatlodge is the start of a literary ceremony that is led by a writer who is a great storyteller. Putting the book down is hard. You’ll hold in your urge to go to the washroom, or you’ll take the book with you. No matter what age you are the grooves on your face will change from smiles to sadness to shock and will end with a mixture of all three.
The collection is broken into four parts:
Each story takes you into the lives of people participating in the same ceremony: the midnight sweatlodge.
If you’ve never been to a sweat Rice takes you through the ceremony from beginning to end via different snippets that start the book, continue at the end of each chapter, and end before the last story begins. Rice’s words have you feeling the cold of waiting outside the lodge wearing just a towel and feeling the warmth once inside the lodge during the ceremony.
An Elder speaking to the eight participants at the start of the sweat is also speaking to the reader:
“For many of you, this is the first time you’ve ever done this. But it isn’t the first time you’ve been here. This is your mother’s womb. You have come here for healing. This is a sacred place and when you leave here tonight you’ll feel that love once again. Come in and sit down,” (p. 2).
And so the journey begins.
Dust, the first story, takes you into a small unnamed Aboriginal community. Two brothers are the main characters. In just eighteen pages the reader learns about present day reservation life and the history that led up to it. Rice talks of the “ugliest season” being winter because of the boredom that leads to drinking and violence; he shows you people assimilating to Canadian culture via throwing away their moccasins for penny loafers and cutting their hair; and he shows you who is responsible: church and government.
“It was a community in healing, the older generation still getting used to being stuck here. They didn’t talk much about the old days or the old ways. That was beaten out of them early on. But after three generations there was a bit of a spark. Our dad didn’t tell us anything about being Ojibway, but, once in a while, he would lay down a piece of ancient wisdom. He was still coming to grips with understanding himself. His parents grew up speaking only Ojibway. He grew up speaking Ojibway and English. And we grew up speaking mostly English. That’s how quickly our culture had been scrubbed from our community,” (p. 12-13).
Dust deals with many things: questions of identity; land disputes via an armed standoff; death; and spirituality.
With crisp and realistic dialogue Rice takes you into a conversation that’s probably happened thousands of times and will probably happen thousands more:
“Big brother,” he asked. What’s a sweatlodge?”
“I dunno,” I replied. “I think you do that when you get cold in winter. Why?”
“Nate was talking about it at the beach the other day when we were swimming. He said it’s what Indians do.”
“Well…did we ever do something like that?”
“Then I don’t think it’s what Indians do. I think we just go to church.”
Bloodlines, the third story in the collection, is about a mixed race relationship as well as white-Aboriginal relations. A couple, the male being Aboriginal and the female being white, return home from a party, talk, make love, go to ‘sleep’ and have an intense talk in the middle of the night. First described as “a love built on five year of learning, conflict, understanding, and passion”, conflict seems to be the overriding factor. With the male feeling the pressure of “racial obligations” he remembers his family as he stares at the ceiling in bed:
“They say racism only comes with power, but no on is above looking past colour. Most Indians only want Indians to be with Indians. That’s especially what parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents want. That’s what he felt, anyway. She felt it too, but he always reassured her. Especially tonight, in front of all her friends from wealthy neighbourhoods in far away places who converged in this urban stew of colour and culture,” (p. 54).
After hours of a tense sleeplessness an argument ensues and again Rice displays his gift of writing dialogue:
“Are we seriously gonna talk about this again?” she asked.
“About what?” he replied, knowing fully well.
“We can’t help who we are or where we come from. But I thought we loved eachother? Isn’t that enough?”
“Yeah … it is … “
“Well, what’s the fucking problem?”
Blank, frustrated stares into the ceiling ensued, (p. 57).
Mixed race relationships can be tough and Bloodlines will ring true for many.
Rice looks into many societal problems, race being a big one. Throughout the collection when Rice describes an Aboriginal characters skin he writes “brown”. But not all Aboriginal folks are brown. Many are black, white, or a mix of brown, black, and white. Why the consistent description of “brown”?
A word used in the collection that I found bothersome was “ancient”. Rice uses this word to describe Aboriginal ceremony and teachings. When I think of the word ancient I think of something that is obsolete, out of date, no longer relevant. The sweatlodge ceremony and teachings are here today and will be here for a long, long time.
Midinight Sweatlodge is an awesome read. Fun, fast, and unforgettable. While reading Rice’s stories I felt the same as I did when reading Sherman Alexie and Richard Van Camp for the first time: elated. On his website Rice writes, “I like books that make you re-read the last twenty pages right after you finish.” I’ll be re-reading Rice as I do Alexie and Van Camp and it won’t just be the last twenty pages.
Midnight Sweatlodge starts with a spark that turns into fire and the entire collection is a bang!
Tune into Black Coffee Poet Wednesday June 20, 2012 for an inclusive interview with Waubgeshig Rice.