The internet has changed the way I read books. Books are like treasure maps, a starting point for an adventure. I can read the book, then google the author to find the backstory. Often there are worksheets or lesson plans already written. Books are just the starting point and one thing leads to another.
Caribou Song was written by Thomson Highway and illustrated by John Rombough. The back description says:
Joe and Cody are brothers who follow the caribou (ateek) all year long. Joe plays the accordion (kitoochigan) and Cody dances to entice the wandering caribou. But when thousands of caribou heed their call, the boys become part of a magical adventure.
Told in English and Cree, Tomson Highway’s portrait of the land, peoples and customs of northern Manitoba is a tribute to a passing way of life.
I didn’t read the back description until after I had read the book, and then I was a little amused by the description “a magical adventure” because that phrase envokes in me images of dragons, knights or at least trolls or goblins or something. The magical adventure in this story is much more subtle and probably a lot more real. You have to pause and close your eyes and picture what it would feel like to feel the magic rather than have it spoon fed to you.
I found myself trying to seperate out the Cree words. Could I recognize repeated words? Could I figure out what some of the words meant? I did figure out a few! There’s joy in read a bilingual book.
the author: Tomson Highway
Tomson Highway, the author, is a playwrite, pianoist and writer. He went to a residential school and said it was a good thing for him because he learned there to play the piano and to speak English. As I surf through videos I find he’s a bit of a comic too. “My parents don’t speak a word of English. Do you know why? Cause they’re dead.” The video linked to above isn’t entirely child-friendly but it also has some neat discussion around the mythology of a divine female and a trickster diety.
In one of the videos Mr. Highway refers to the North as a Garden of Eden that needs to be saved from environmental damage due to gold and diamond mining. He mentions language affecting people, with the Cree language acknowledging trees as a “who” not a “it” as part of the inspiration for caring for our environment.
I found some vidoes of Mr. Highway talking about Canada and the North. Listening to him talk about how the tree line I get a sense of the vast emptiness of the North. It’s so tempting to think of the real Canada as the thin strip of populated area to the South, the place where most Canadians live. Yet maybe that huge vastness is Canada. Maybe we’re still a native land to a much greater extent than we’re used to thinking of it as.
the illustrator: John Rombough
The illustrator is John Rombough. He had been adopted as a child by a PEI couple but reconnected with his family and his northern heritage. He is part of the Dene nation. Mr. Rombough was inspired by the paintings of Norval Morrisseau, another one-time student of a residential school. Norval Morrisseau was sometimes called the Picasso of the North and is counted as one of the Indian Group of Seven.
The thick dark outlines are beautiful and they inspired my five year old and I to explore drawing with a thick permanent marker. Of course drawing anything with a thick permanent marker you need to have layers of paper underneath to avoid the ink going through. My son took to it quite naturally but I found it interesting realizing that I’m not used to using a lot of black when drawing. I’m more used to being hesitant, but it was freeing and fun in a way to use the black marker.
Many different aspects of the story make me reflect. I think about my own childhood and what types of magical adventures I had. I grew up in a town an hour and a half northeast of Edmonton, Alberta, and I played with friends on the banks of the North Saskatchean River. At times I felt a great connection with the land and at times the land was just a setting on which we could overlay our own adventures, imagined from things like smugglers and criminals we had read about in books. Books – and television or computers – can expand a person’s world but also distract a person from the reality around.
I think also about trying to respectfully make native culture a part of my children’s lives, not appropriating it or as a fad, but as an acknowledgement that we live on native land. Perhaps if history had been different we would have been part of the minority. Maybe we should recognize ourselves as guests or strangers in the land and make a point to learn about our hosts, even if right now they lack the political power they should have.
It reminds me of the importance of looking at the smaller art productions – local artshows, local theatre, smaller publishing house books, etc -rather than just the bestsellers and blockbusters. It makes me think about the importance of telling our politicians that we value and appreciate the arts, and that we would like to see them continue to invest in the arts.