THE HUNGRY GHOSTS

SHYAM SELVADURAI

“In Sri Lankan myth, a person is reborn a peréthaya [hungry ghost] because, during his human life, he desired too much” When his father died,six-year-old Shivan’s mother and sister moved with him into his maternal grandmother’s house. Daya was an angry and demanding woman who refused to talk to her daughter. Shivan, the grandson, became the golden boy, the reason she would take the family in. While he soaked up his grandmother’s recounting of ancient Buddhist tales about ghosts who haunt their future selves until past wrongs are redeemed, Shivan also chafed against her hold on him as he aged. He persuaded his mother to move the family to Canada, as much to get away from Daya as to flee the escalating conflict in Sri Lanka. Not that he could really escape—neither his grandmother nor his troubled country were anywhere near finished wreaking havoc in Shivan’s life. On an extended visit back to Sri Lanka, Shivan was taking over his grandmother real estate business until his grandmother had his lover killed.

Ghosts is a well written book. But when Shiven’s affair with Michael goes south I wanted to tell the young men to grow up. It could have used some paring down.

BECOMING NICOLE: The Transformation of an American Family

Amy Ellis Nutt

At almost 3 years old, when Nicole was still known as Wyatt, he declared to his father, “I hate my penis.”  She alway knew she was a girl despite having an identical twin brother. Nicole’s mother, Kelly, supported Wyatt as he presented himself — a girl mistakenly incarnated as a boy. His father, Wayne, a man’s man: both hunter and ex-military, had trouble that his son was a girl. Eventually he came around and became a spokesman for transgender rights. “The world where he was a father and husband in an ordinary, hardworking, middle-class family had just blown up. He stood there stunned, unable to hear whatever was going on around him, as if deafened by the psychological explosion.” Nicole was bullied in school and the administration refused to protect her. The family sued the School Division for barring her from using the girls’ bathroom.

The author not only tells Nicole’s and her family’s story but also the medical and legal stories of transgender people. It is well research and well written.

“Lesson number one: “Sexual orientation is who you go to bed with,” he told Spack. “Gender identity is who you go to bed as.”

“other words, our genitals and our gender identity are not the same. Sexual anatomy and gender identity are the products of two different processes, occurring at distinctly different times and along different neural pathways before we are even born. Both are functions of genes as well as hormones, and while sexual anatomy and gender identity usually match, there are dozens of biological events that can affect the outcome of the latter”

“When it comes to that physical self, for a transgender person every waking moment, every conscious breath, is a denial of who they truly are.”

THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS

LAURIE FRANKEL

Penn and Rosie have four rowdy, rambunctious boys who they teach they can be anything they want to be. They want to have a girl but of course, they end up with another boy. But Claude is different. Claude is quieter and calmer than the other boys ever were. At three Claude starts wearing a dress and saying he wants to be a girl when he grows up. The family motto is you can be anything you want to be, so the parents take this in stride. For pre-school Claude wore pants to school then changed into his dress when he returned home. When Claude starts kindergarten he starts wearing dresses and skirts to school and adopts the name Poppy. After a playdate gone horribly wrong with a gun-toting homophobe father the family flees to Seattle for greater acceptance. There they tell no one that Poppy is both a girl and a boy. But secrets have a way of getting out.

Terribly well written, THIS IS a page-turner. It’s the best book I’ve read for some time.

TOMBOY SURVIVAL GUIDE

IVAN COYOTE imgres

Tomboy Survival Guide, by the Canadian writer, performer and musician Ivan Coyote, is of well-told tales about the author’s experiences growing up as a transgender person in the Yukon. Adapted from Coyote’s successful stage show of the same name, these stories are entertaining but also impart serious messages and offer the reader a window into the experiences of a transgender person who became a successful writer and performer. Like many transgendered people, Coyote prefers the pronouns they and them. Coyote describes grandmother Flo, a devout Catholic, as “not a cuddly woman” and as someone who was “far more likely to cuff the back of your head than she was to pat the top of it.” Yet Flo was perhaps the first person to reassure Coyote that, while they might not be just like everyone else, they was just fine the way they was. As Coyote remembers it, Flo said that “Some of us have hard roads, but the Lord never gives anyone a burden without also giving them a gift. Your job is to find out what that gift is and use it, y’hear me? God doesn’t make mistakes. Never forget that. You are exactly who God meant you to be.”Public bathrooms and change rooms for me have always been a choice between very uncomfortable and potentially unsafe, so I try to be polite about it because if I get angry it become so much easier for them to

Public bathrooms and change rooms for me have always been a choice between very uncomfortable and potentially unsafe, so I try to be polite about it because if I get angry it become so much easier for them to dismiss me, plus an angry someone who looks like a man in the ladies’ change room? Then I am seen as even more of a threat. Then it is even more all my fault.

coyote-tomboy-survival-guide-s650But my day-to-day struggles are not so much between me and my body. A am not trapped in the wrong body. I am trapped in sa world that  makes very little space for bodies like mine. I live in a world where public washrooms are a battleground where politicians can stand up and be applauded for putting forth an amendment barring me from choosing which gendered bathroom I belong in. I live in a world where my trans sisters are routinely murdered without consequence or justice. I live in a world where trans youth get kicked out onto the street by their parents who think their God is standing behind them as they close their front doors on their own children. Going  to the beach is an act of bravery for me. None of this is a battle between me and my own flesh. For me to be free, it is the world that has to change, not trans people.

Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir

41z-wdxbkul-_sx325_bo1204203200_MALIK SAJAD

When India was divided into India and Pakistan, most of Kashmir went to India even though its population is mostly Muslim whereas India is mostly Hindu. Kashmir was occupied by the Indian army and became a hotspot for trouble between India and Pakistan. The Kashmiri want independence, their own country. Munnu grew up in this intense environment, never knowing when the government would raid the house, arrest his father or older brother and steal something valuable. His father was an artist who worked in wood block prints. As a child Munnu would help his father with his art. The illustrations in this graphic memoir look like wood block prints. The Kashmir are portrayed ashangul deer (the Kashmir stag) which are now endangered, since their habitat is being destroyed by the Indian  army. Other people are portrayed as humans. At the age of 15, Munnu starts a career as a political cartoonist.  Later a westerner introduces Sajad to the works of Joe Saacco, who has written many political graphic non-fiction books, and encourages Sajad to write one about Kashmir.

I enjoy reading graphic non-fiction books about hotspots around the world. They can give a good overview of the situation. This one on Kashmir is well done.munnu-sig

BECOMING UNBECOMING

UNAurl

Una uses her own experiences with sexual assault and the background of the Yorkshire Ripper, in the 70’s to examine rape culture where women are made to feel guilty for being a victim. Through image and text Becoming, Unbecoming explores what it means to grow up in a culture where male violence goes unpunished and unquestioned. Una explores her experience, wonders if anything has really changed and challenges a global culture that demands that the victims of violence pay its cost. The police tried to justify the Ripper’s horrific crimes by publicly questioning why the women were out of their homes in the first place. Rather than following up on explicit physical descriptions and leads provided by one of the Ripper’s surviving victims, police instead chose to focus on gathering evidence that the murdered women were prostitutes or otherwise had “loose morals.”

This is a book all men and women should read.

THE ILLEGAL

arts_books1-1-72464fd7f6b3c94d                                                                                                         LAWRENCE HILL

THE ILLEGAL seems even more timely today, with the election of Trump and his executive order to start construction of the wall on the border of Mexico, than when it was first published. Illegal follows the story of Keita Ali and his family in the fictional country of Zantoroland. It’s populated by people whose ancestors, a century and a half ago, were the slaves whose labour built the third wealthiest economy on the planet, the nearby fictional country of Freedom State.  Keita Ali is running a marathon in Freedom State against a vicious opponent who is tormenting him with racial slurs. “Go Home N—–.” Keita is not just running a race, he’s on the run from the authorities who want to deport him. With his tormentor at his heels, the unflappable hero calmly ticks his pace up a notch and begins to sing as he surges up the hill: “Want to shatter your opponent’s confidence? Just when he starts to hurt, you sing.” Keita’s sister is captured by the Zantoroland’s military government and held for ransom so Keita must run and win every race so he can buy her freedom. Hill creates a trove of fascinating characters: a violent sports agent, a woman who runs a brothel and AfricTown (the black shantytown), a prime minister who is evil incarnate, and a schoolboy who films everything by hiding in various closets.

Hill is an excellent writer. The Illegal is not to be missed.

 

 

 

THE STRANGER

DAVID BERGEN28448542-_uy400_ss400_-1

Íso works in a fertility clinic near her hometown in the highlands of Guatemala with a handsome American doctor named Eric Mann. The inevitable happens and they fall in love. When Dr Mann’s estranged wife comes to Guatemala to attend the clinic as a patient, Íso is assigned to look after her. Just as a relatively straightforward end to Íso and Dr Mann’s relationship seems inevitable, Íso becomes pregnant.Eric’s motorcycle accident causes a brain injury and he returned to his wife in the states. Following the birth of the child in the clinic, the child is taken from Iso and sent to her father. With few resources, Iso sets out on  to cross two dangerous and heavily guarded borders
to reclaim her daughter.

 

 

PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN

JENNIFER CLEMENT18007563

“My name is Ladydi Garcia Martinez,and I have brown skin, brown eyes and brown frizzy hair, and look like everyone else I know. As a child my mother used to dress me up as a boy and call me Boy. I told everyone a boy was born, she said. If I were a girl then I would be stolen. All the drug traffickers had to do was hear there was a pretty girl around and they’d sweep onto our lands in black Escalades and carry the girl off.” Stolen is the story of a young Mexican girl, Ladydi, who grows up in a rural mountain community in the Pacific state of Guerrero — “a land of red insects and women” — not far from Acapulco. Although named after Diana, Princess of Wales — the “saint for betrayed women” — Ladydi is called “Boy” by her mother, Rita. Turning girls into boys — or at least making them ugly — is a matter of survival on the mountain. Though not stolen Ladydi does get mixed up with the narcos.

Well written, Stolen is a powerful book. Violence against women in the drug wars in Mexico is a huge problem.

 

MISCHLING

AFFINITY KONAR28664920

Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz physician who not only sent countless men, women and children to the gas chambers, but also performed grotesque experiments on selected prisoners — especially twins, whom he eagerly sought out upon arrival. Konar makes the emotional lives of her two spirited, twin narrators piercingly real, as they recount, in alternating chapters, the story of their efforts to survive: Pearl, once the more outgoing of the sisters, becomes more methodical, more focused on memories to get through each day; while Stasha grows feistier and more cunning — “a creature capable of tricking her enemies and rescuing her loved ones.”

Once inseparable, the twins are broken in different ways by Mengele’s repulsive experiments, which damage Stasha’s hearing and sight; and leave Pearl in an isolated cage, her ankles snapped and her feet smashed.

Mischling is a dark book but light radiates in the girls’ strength and will to survive. It’s a great read.

Forgiveness “did not remove my pain or blunt my nightmares. It was not a new beginning. It was not, in the slightest, an end. My forgiveness was a constant repetition, an acknowledgment of the fact that I still lived; it was proof that their experiments, their numbers, their samples, was all for naught — I remained, a tribute to their underestimations of what a girl can endure. In my forgiveness, their failure to obliterate me was made clear.”

Mischling (“mixed-blood” in German) was the German legal term used in Nazi Germany to denote persons deemed to have both Aryan and Jewish ancestry.

OLEANDER GIRL

CHITRA BANERJEE DIVAKARUNIgirl

Girl tells the story of clashes of classes, ages and sexes. Korobi has been raised in a happy home, in Kolkata, by her grandparents because her mother died in childbirth and her father died in a tragic car accident. Her fiancée Rajat comes from a wealthy business family. But he is conflicted. Is he ready to leave his bad boy bachelor ways behind him and settle down to work and commit to one woman? When Korobi finds a love letter from her mother to her father that was never sent she sets out on a mission to find her father in America where her mother studied as a young woman. Will Rajat and his family still have her when they find out the truth about her father?

YUGE!: 10 Years of Doonesbury on Trump

G B TRUDEAUtrudeau-yuge-s650

I am so sick of Trump! I can’t stand seeing his ugly mug, hearing his voice or reading about him. But when I read of this compilation of Gary Trudeau’s Trump cartoons, I knew I had to check it out. And it is worth the time. Trudeau’s cutting sense of humour is a perfect foil for the Donald. It starts in the fall of 1987, can you imagine, when Trump was first starting to talk about running for President. One of the funniest pages comes at the end with Donald asking kids, “Hey Kids, tired of getting killed on insults in the cafeteria? Then start fighting back with my quality TRUMP Brand Insults. Choose from over 500 TREMENDOUS insults I’ve tweeted since last June including…” Then there are two pages of insults. Most presidential.

It all ends of course with the election that is ongoing this fall. Hopefully come Nov. 8 we will be laughing not crying.

THE EDUCATION OF OF AUGIE MERASTY: A Residential School Memoir

JOSEPH AUGUSTE MERASTY with David Carpentered

Anyone interested in truth and reconciliation with First Nations people should read this book. “When I was at that school, it seemed always to be winter time.” One winter when Augie was 11 or 12, he and another boy were forced to retrace their steps 20 miles across the lake and into the wild, by themselves, in the extreme cold, in search of the two mittens they’d lost. Out there alone, as the temperatures plummeted, the boys’ fright was only exasperated when they came across fresh wolf tracks and imagined having to fend off a pack with nothing but sticks. When they found all trace of the lost mittens erased by the blowing wind, they returned to school to admit their failure to Sister St. Mercy. “We, of course, got the strap, twenty strokes on both hands.” It wasn’t just that physical and sexual abuse occurred over and over again, but the school’s hypocrisy of students subsisting on “rotten porridge and dry bread” while Brothers and Sisters of the church feasted on roast chicken and cake.

The students were just kids, but doing the things that kids do—whispering, poking each other in the ribs, or laughing when the livestock on the property mated—resulted in regular, furious punishments out-of-scale with the perceived infraction: getting the strap, being beaten with a hose, or, in Brother Lepeigne’s hands, being forced to fight with another misbehaving boy while the other students gathered round in a circle. Once, when Augie hit a Brother with a bean from a slingshot as a prank, the schoolmaster punished him “with the strap, beaten with fists to the face, and a foot to the ribs. I will never forget how it hurt”

Definitely a must read.

COUNTRY OF RED AZALEAS

DOMNICA azRADULESCA

Azaleas takes place during the Bosnian War (1992-1995), when Serbian soldiers practiced systematic genocide and raped an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 Bosnian women in “rape camps.” In spite of the violence, Lara and Marija — a Serb and a Bosnian, respectively — remain closer than sisters, even in the face of separation and tragedy. The two meet when both are schoolgirls in Belgrade and become inseprable. As college students, they spend hours in cafés discussing politics and philosophy. When war breaks out, Lara leaves for the United States with her new American husband, Mark, while Marija returns to Sarajevo to become a war reporter behind Bosnian lines. Mark tries to help Lara adapt to American life. Some of the most amusing parts of an otherwise unsettling novel are Lara’s attempts to understand concepts such as stay-at-home mom and take-out food. After having a baby, Lara begins a doctorate at the university and throws herself into her studies. At a conference in Paris, Lara meets a handsome, North African named Karim, with whom she has an affair, leading to a devastating divorce. When Marija surfaces in California, Lara races to join her, but finds her vastly changed. Still gorgeous, wild, and irreverent, Marija now has a glass eye and a reconstructed face. Furthermore, she suffers moments of deep dejection and fits of sobbing. Marija presses Lara to help her find her child born from violent rape.

“When I looked at her,” says Lara, “I saw the full horror of that day in July 1995 displayed glaringly on her face. The gushing of blood, the obscene panting, the muffled screams, flesh, organs, guns, screams begging for death, sighing for death, screaming the sharpest scream across the black earth. It all passed for one second on Marija’s face like an apocalyptic cloud. The next second it was gone.”

Despite some horrific scenes, Country of Red Azaleas is an uplifting and optimistic novel. The strength and determination of both protagonists, their love for one another, and their yearning to create a better future for themselves and their children surpass the traumas they have suffered.

 

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES

BEN H. WINTERSAirlines

In this alternate reality the US is not a superpower; in fact, most western nation have economic sanctions against the US because four of the 48 states still have slavery. Amendments have enshrined slavery in the constitution. Victor is a former slave. His tenuous freedom is granted to him by Mr. Bridge, a shadowy figure with the federal marshals, who has hired him to track escaped slaves for return to the south to their owners. An escaped slave was only truely free when he crossed the 49th parallel into Canada. Victor — who excels at his work and has captured more than 200 people — infiltrates an abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines, and is forced to confront his own complicity.

Colour is most important to Victor as he describes the black characters we meet: “… all the kinds of faces the world calls black: brown and tan and yellow and orange, copper and bronze and gold.”

“What the slave wants but can never have is not only freedom from the chains but also from their memory.”

 

“Now I see things differently. It took me some time, but I know the secret now. Freedman Town serves a good purpose — not for the people who live there, Lord knows; people stuck there by poverty, by prejudice, by laws that keep them from moving or working. Freedman Town’s purpose is for the rest of the world. The world that sits, like Martha, with dark glasses on, staring from a distance, scared but safe. Create a pen like that, give people no choice but to live like animals, and then people get to point at them and say ‘Will you look at those animals? That’s what kind of people those people are.’ And that idea drifts up and out of Freedman Town like chimney smoke, black gets to mean poor and poor to mean dangerous and all the words get murked together and become one dark idea, a cloud of smoke, the smokestack fumes drifting like filthy air across the rest of the nation.”

Beautifully imagined and well written Underground Airlines will keep you thinking for al long time.

GUAPA

SALEEM HADDADguapa

“Guapa” encompasses a day in the life of Rasa, a young gay man in an unnamed Middle Eastern country during the turbulence of the Arab Spring. His path winds from his family’s upper-middle-class home, where his family is on the verge of discovering his secret relationship with another young man, to the city’s poverty-stricken suburbs, where the embers of revolution are catching fire, to the police stations where regime thugs brutalize and intimidate dissidents, to a lavish wedding in the city’s most exclusive hotel. Along the way, he is forced to reckon with the hidden forces that have driven both him and his country to a fever pitch of despair and frustration.

Told with simple elegance and wry humour, “Guapa” is both a universal story of the perils of adulthood and a deeply personal examination of culture and identity. Haddad writes like an Arab Tennessee Williams, fueled equally by rage and compassion as he explores the social, sexual and economic chasms that divide his characters from each other, and themselves.

BE FRANK WITH ME

frankJULIA CLAIRBORNE JOHNSON

One hit wonder, recluse author M M Banning is broke, “swindled of her fortune by a crooked investment adviser.” She contracts to write a second novel, after 20 years, if her publisher provides a healthy advance and an assistant “bankrolled by the publisher.” When Alice arrives, her only duty is to take care of the nine-year-old, eccentric son, Frank.  Frank’s daily attire includes tailcoats, yacht wear, cufflinks, a top hat, and a fez.  He can neither be touched nor can he stand having his possessions touched. Either could cause a complete breakdown. He speaks in encyclopedia entries and makes observations far beyond his years, “as if he were  reading off a teleprompter in the middle distance.” He constantly reminds people that his IQ is higher than 97.9% of other people. Alice tries her best with Frank but she had assumed that she would be transcribing the author’s work onto the computer to send to the publishing firm not babysitting an eccentric child.

Frank is a lot of fun but like so many books has a weak ending. It is still an enjoyable ride.

 

 

 

 

 

THE DESERTER’S TALE: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq

JOSHUA KEY as told to LAWRENCE HILLdeserter's

Key thought joining the U.S. military was a way to escape the poverty of his youth and get a decent-paying, secure job, perhaps even an education, to support his growing family. In many ways, Key was an ideal recruit: he had a childhood fascination with guns, he was a bit of a fighter but still followed orders, and he was good with his hands. He even enjoyed boot camp where they were taught all Iraqis were terrorist, even the babies. In Iraq, Key took part in acts of cruel and vindictive violence. His squad’s nightly tasks become a routine of violence and the abuse of power: raiding civilian homes, brutalizing the inhabitants, destroying the contents, stealing the valuables and taking the men and boy five feet tall away, never to be seen again. Key does not know where these men, who were not arrested for any crime, were sent: perhaps to Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. joshua keyThey never found any terrorists, caches of weapons or weapons of mass destruction. Yet they were ordered to do the same thing night after night. At first there was no resistance. Then gradually resistance began to build. Key commented that if a foreign power landed in the US and terrorized the citizens the same way there would be hell to pay.

“We claimed to be bringing democracy and good order to the people of Iraq, but all we brought were hate and destruction. The only thing gave to the people of Iraq was a reason to despise us–for generations to come.”

When home for a two week break Key realized he could not return. He was already suffering from PTSD. Eventually, he made it to Canada where he applied for asylum.

“I will never apologize for deserting the American army. I deserted an injustice and leaving was the only right thing to do. I owe one apology and one apology only and that is to the people of Iraq.”

lawrence-hill_584During the 60’s and 70’s Canada’s door were open to anti-war protestors. I hope that will happen again with our recent change of government. Canada benefited from the creative and entrepreneurial spirit those immigrants brought. One name that comes to mind is the Canadian author Robert Munsch.

THE BOOK OF MEMORY

PETINA GAPPAHMemory

Memory starts with a bold thunder clap: in the first two sentences we learn that there has been an ugly death and that Memory was sold by her parents to a strange man, Lloyd. Immediately your mind wonders why a man is buying a child? Memory’s family was poor, “but everyone was poor so nobody knew they were poor.” Her skin would blister and burn because she was an albino. Her mother had little gentleness and kindness. The novel takes place in a Zimbabwean prison where Memory is serving a life sentence for murdering Lloyd.  In preparing for an appeal she is given a notebook and asked to write about her life. These musing make up the body of the book. A wonderful exploration of the themes of memory and forgiveness.

CLEARING THE PLAINS:

JAMES DASCHUK

“Those Reserve Indians are in a deplorable state of destitution, they receive from the Indian Department just enough food to keep soul and body together, they are all but naked, many of them barefooted,” Lawrence Clarke wrote in 1880 of near-starvation Cree around Fort Carlton. “Should sickness break out among them in their present weakly state,” the long-time Hudson’s Bay Company employee concluded, “the fatality would be dreadful” (Daschuk, 114).

Sickness did break out, with tuberculosis and other infectious diseases decimating a reserve population made vulnerable to disease by years of famine and inadequate government rations. The loss of life was immense, James Daschuk recounts in Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Lifeand amounted to a “state-sponsored attack on indigenous communities” whose effects “haunt us as a nation still” (186).

ClearingthePlains

University of Regina Press, 318 pages
Casebound with dust jacket, $39.95.

Daschuk’s examination of the ecological, economic, and political factors shaping the history of the Canadian plains—and its Aboriginal inhabitants—from the early 1700s to the eve of the twentieth century is divided into two sections. The first, covering up to Canada’s acquisition ofRupert’s Land in 1870, outlines how the spread of smallpox and other diseases through fur trade networks was devastating for some but presented economic and territorial opportunities for others. The Anishinabe expanded their fur trade participation onto the plains, Daschuk illustrates, when the once-dominant Assiniboine were decimated by disease.

The lethality of infectious outbreaks for individual Aboriginal communities was shaped by the type and degree of its contact with traders and missionaries, its population density, and mobility among others. The spread of disease was largely an organic process, rather than the result of the willful malevolence of human actors.

In the book’s second half, Daschuk explores the Canadian state’s growing presence on the plains. First Nations leaders were willing to formalize their relationship to the crown through treaty, which they envisioned as a bridge to a bison-less future that required a difficult transition to farming. The Dominion, however, seemed only open to negotiations when settler development was imminent.

Widespread famine struck the plains with the disappearance of bison caused in part by the herds’ susceptibility to new pathogens—like bovine tuberculosis—carried by the domesticated cattle settlers introduced to the region. Although Cree leaders had succeeded in convincing the crown’s representative to include clauses covering medical aid and famine relief in Treaty 6, when they sought assistance the Dominion, with little infrastructure in the west initially, was ill-equipped to fulfill its treaty obligations.

At the depth of the famine, emaciated First Nations arrived at forts and settlements begging for food. Frequently, the official response was not to provide emergency food, but to construct stockades around ration houses. There were, however, relatively few incidents of law-breaking or poaching of cattle in response to the crisis. Many of those seeking relief were willing to work for rations, but the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) didn’t have enough work to go around.

Daschuk points to the election of the Conservatives in the fall of 1878 as a turning point when the “[m]anagement of the famine took on a more sinister character” (184). An ever-tightening budget at the DIA meant staff cuts, including medical staff who’d proven effective in vaccinating against smallpox, and orders that the file be managed “as economically as possible” (122). When the Opposition still complained about the budget, Macdonald promised that emergency rations would be refused “until the Indians were on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense” (134). Available food rotted in government storehouses as malnutrition, sickness, and death ravaged the reserve population.

With the government also neglecting the agricultural assistance promised by treaty, there was no alternative source of food on reserves. Furthermore, even if reserve residents managed to achieve a measure of success in farming, government regulations limited their ability to sell their crops or produce beyond the reserve—systematically marginalizing indigenous peoples from the West’s emerging economy. Adding insult to injury, many low-level, but powerful DIA officials and farm instructors abused their positions, exchanging food for sex, or colluding with government contractors for personal gain.

Prolonged malnutrition, the desperate scavenging of tuberculosis-infected animals, and the consumption of subpar or even tainted government rations, eventually made First Nations on reserves vulnerable to emerging epidemics. Staggering rates of tuberculosis mortality—rising from 40 deaths per 1,000 in 1881 to 127 per 1,000 in 1886—were significantly higher than in nearby settler communities. Misreading the evidence and denying a link with malnourishment, medical researchers confidently declared that Aboriginal peoples were simply more susceptible to disease.

This convenient narrative—soon accepted as orthodox in the medical and political establishment—made the incredible loss of life on the plains a question of biological predisposition rather than one of state policy. It’s proven to be a remarkably resilient idea, too, and one which lies at the root of our casual acceptance of deplorable health outcomes—higher rates of diabetes, AIDS, and suicide—among the reserve population today.

Perhaps the most damning evidence Daschuk presents are the few exceptions to this cycle of famine and disease. The Dakota who depended less upon the bison and had transitioned to farming at an earlier stage, and northern Cree communities in Saskatchewan who were able to maintain their traditional economies outside the harsh constraints of the reserve system did not suffer the same rates of tuberculosis seen on reserves. The determining factor in these divergent health outcomes, Daschuk argues, was the degree of Aboriginal peoples’ reliance on government assistance. He concludes that “those with the least contact with the Indian department were the healthiest” (166).

Clearing the Plains is heavy, sobering reading, laced with chilling snapshots of desperation, callousness, and catastrophe. In support of his provocative argument—that the Canadian government stage-managed famine in order to coerce and control the Aboriginal population—Daschuk’s tone is remarkably restrained, never veering into the polemical. He lets his evidence speak for itself, zooming out from explorations of single cultural communities or single infectious outbreaks in the existing historical literature to identify broader patterns. Into his synthesis, he patiently weaves in accounts from diaries, letters, and the records of the HBC and DIA.

As Daschuk moves epidemiological and environmental forces to the forefront—and detailed discussion of key events into the background—of his prairies history, some advance knowledge of the history of the fur trade and the numbered treaties is beneficial to the reader. Swiftly shifting the discussion between locales and First Nations affected—given the expanse of time and territory the book spans—can also be disorienting for the reader at times. But, Clearing The Plains rewards careful reading.

This is a book all Canadians should read.

I borrowed this review from ActiveHistory.ca