The StarPhoenix Review - Scattered Bones

Reviewed by: The StarPhoenix

Real-life Inspiration

Book set in Pelican Narrows

Here's a trivia question that once made the rounds: Who's the only Nobel Prize-winning American author to visit Saskatchewan? Well, it's Sinclair Lewis, author of Babbitt and Main Street. Maggie Siggins probably knew the answer that question before it as asked and put it together with her long-standing research on SAskatchewan's north and its indigenous peoples.

Siggins, who lived 20 years in Saskatchewan but now lives in Toronto, showed us in Bitter Embrace that she knows a lot about the tratement of First Nations people at the hands of the colonizing powers up in the Pelican Narrows area. She also won a Governor General's award for another Saskatchewan-based, non-fiction work, Revenge of the Land. Now, in her first work of fiction - though "inspired by a number of first-hand accounts of events in Pelican Narrows in July 1924" and backed up by various secondary sources - Siggins revisits Pelican Narrows to tell a story of treachery, deceit, romance, lies, and recovery, and, the visit by Sinclair Lewis and his brother to northern Saskatchewan.

Midway through the novel the local Roman Catholic priest, Etienne Bonnald, seeks a little peace from all the hubbub going on in town: "Pelican Narrows is usually a quiet place," nothing much happening day by day. Except for once a year, when the Treaty Party sets up camp. In only a few days every important decision affection the lives of every single individual must be made. All under the command of the Indian agent, a tin pot dictator who gives not a fig for the welfare of the Cree, or anybody else for that matter. And this year, the inclusion of The Famous Writer has resulted in a whirl of social events." This is a troubled man, unable to talk to anyone, even God, of his torment: "But he will not, here in this his private place, pray directly to the Almighty. Etienne believes Him to be a cruel, unjust and vengeful God. He doesn't deny His existence. He just despises Him."

And that's just one person's torment. His white counterpart, the Anglican Reverend Ernst Wentworth, reproaches himself as "a gutless coward," whose daughter, Izzie, has walked willingly into the arms of the kind, decent, and well-educated Joseph Sewap, a man who has his own big secret. He's been taken out into the bush by his First Nations grandfather to teach him to be an Indian, away from all that white nonsense, and here he's learned of his mosom's plan to raid Pelican Narrows and destroy its white population for all the horrors they've inflicted on the Native people.

Wentworth has no idea what his daughter's up to, nor does his wife, Lucretia. She came with plans to "transform the lives of Pelican Narrows' female population. She would teach them how to crochet, provide helpful hints on modern housekeeping, and form educational groups." Her arrogance is profound and of its time, but her own father, a smug historian back in Toronto, asked her, "Did you ever think the barbarians you are so intent or civilizing might be more civilized than you are?"

Good question, especially since one of the local traders, a fellow named Arthur Jan, and his sidekick, Bibiane Ratt, are up to no good involving late nights, lanterns, and First Nations graves. Turns out there's a big market in the civilized big cities of the east for Indian artifacts. And Florence Smith, wife of the competing trader in the village and a formidable person under any circumstance, catches the smell: "something wicked is going on in this place and everybody's attention is diverted by this clown (Lewis) performing stupid tricks."

So from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning, all hell is set to break loose in Pelican Narrows, and begins to do so. Siggins has more going on than it's useful to say here, but waiting offstage is the impending opening of the Sturgeon Landing Residential School, a tour of which has made Father Bonnald sick. He actually loves these people, and that love is made humanly manifest in Siggins's story. There are a few other loves and lusts hidden, as well. And the drunken Sinclair Lewis is here to see it all, something the scheming Arthur Jan can't help but note when he asks, "Didn't these people realize that The Esteemed Writer had made his fame and fortune by ridiculing the wrteched pettiness of their middle class lives?" But even Lewis wasn't prepared for the wretchedness of the residential schools or the agonies still waiting to be visited upon people waiting for the Canadian government to make good on its treaty promises.

Occasionally Scattered Bones reads like a wish list of decent people amid the bad who should have been around in 1924 when such events were taking place. They're almost too good to believe, after all we've heard. But maybe they were there, their voices drowned out by tin pot agents and crooked traders, all putting bereaucracy and money over human lives. Scattered Bones has the fine drive of fiction pushing out of the documented history we're coming to know all too well. 

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