Toronto Star Review - Little Voice

It's not easy to portray minority culture without preaching
Reviewed by: Deirdre Baker

Children's stories that aim to deal with multiculturalism as an issue often give up the qualities that make a tale worth reading -- complex, believable characters; a plot that keeps us breathless or hopeful; a perception about human relations that make us think. Instead, "issue" and "moral" glare out at us from every page. Or we find that the author, in an effort to point out how we're all the same underneath, has celebrated difference by obliterating it -- by turning all the main characters into white suburban North Americans at heart.

How refreshing it is, then, to launch into Ojibwa writer Ruby Slipperjack's Little Voice (Coteau, 246 pages, ages 10 to 12), one of five inaugural titles in Coteau Books' new  In the Same Boat series. It's a story in which the tensions of contrasting cultures are maintained and illuminated, but never become harsh or simplistic.

Living with her mother and younger siblings, Ray, an Ojibwa girl (aging from 10 to 14 in the book), long to leave small-town Northern Ontario and live with her grandmother in the bush. But because her mother needs the welfare cheques that require her to attend school, Ray has to make do with seeing Grandma only in the summer. Year after year, Grandma and Ray canoe into the wilderness, harvest berries, fish, fend off scavenging bears when necessary and, in Grandma's case, tend to those who require the help of a medicine woman. As Ray's familiarity with Grandma's ways and Ojibwa language increases, so does her understanding of her own mixed town and bush upbringing, and her sense of purpose in using it.

Little Voice has riveting moments, although its success doesn't lie in a page-turning plot. Ray's voice often sounds emotionally even, almost flat. Yet it's this very quality in the writing that makes Little Voice successful in communicating Ray's culture. What might be seen as emotional flatness instead comes across as an inherent element of expression. "Grandma and Joshua spoke only key words," Ray tells us, "and the silences I had noticed between the words were replaced with gestures of the hands; but more often it was the eyes and facial expressions that filled the silences." Ray's concrete, simple English seems to reflect that reserve, those silences, yet also tell us worlds about her character and her perspective.

Slipperjack's tale is a real achievement -- a coming-of-age story with an appealing, sympathetic heroine, without moping, self-preoccupation or preaching, and even more, a tale that's distinctly and honestly reflective of the specific culture of author and protagonist. "On the tablecloth were strips of the moose nose, ash-baked potatoes, some pemmican, canned corn, fried fish, wild carrot bunches, bannock, a jar of blueberry jam and a pound of butter," Ray tells us. Grandma asks, "Which of those do you have in town and which do you have in the bush? When you put them all together, what you get is -- you!"

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