November 23, 2008

Kiss of the Fur Queen - Tomson Highway

I can't believe that I missed this book when it was first published in 1998 - I know that by that point I was already very much in to CanLit and haunted bookstores on a regular basis.  Mind you, at that time I was still a student, so didn't have much spare cash to spend on books and had to purchase discriminatingly!

I ended up picking up this book recently, at an event put on locally by Tomson Highway to raise money for literacy - a cabaret show with Mr. Highway playing the piano (and singing a bit) and telling stories.  He is quite a performer, and had us all laughing until we cried!

A brief summary of the book.  It is the story of two Cree brothers from northern Manitoba who end up at a residential school in the late 1950's and 1960's where they are abused by the priest who runs the school.  After their experiences in the school, they no longer fit in with their family (who are struggling to adapt from their nomadic lifestyle to living on a reservation), and both end up living in Winnipeg then Toronto.  One brother becomes a musician and the other, a dancer.  The two brothers follow opposite trajectories.  The musician works hard at first, rises to a small amount of fame, then falls to alcohol abuse, and at the end experiences a form of redemption, assisted by his brother.  The dancer on the other hand struggles to understand his place in the world at first, as well as struggling with his homosexuality, before rising to fame as a dancer, and then succumbing to AIDS.

What makes this book even more poignant is that it is quite closely based on the real story of the Highway brothers - Tomson (the musician and writer) and Rene (a dancer who died of AIDS in 1990).

At the cabaret last month, Tomson Highway said that one theme that runs through all of his plays and books is the loss of the feminine side of the divine when traditional native spirituality is replaced by Christianity, and that is evident in this book.  The trickster ("Nanabush" in Ojibway, "Weesageechak" in Cree) takes on a distinctly female form (The Fur Queen) in the book; and strong female characters are influential on the lives of the protagonists, especially in the revival of their cultural awareness.

Also, living in this part of the world, the residential school experience is very relevant today.  I have many clients at work who attended these schools where many children were abused, and traditional culture was lost; and reading this book has given me a glimpse of some of what they have lived through.

I'm glad that I bought this book at the cabaret, and look forward to re-reading many times!


lj said...

How did I miss your joining the blogging world??? yay! another blog to read at lunch time :) Welcome sister!

Anonymous said...

I also found this book profoundly moving.

Tomson Highway has been criticized for his one-dimensional portrayal of first nations people in his plays, but he is the seminal author and playwright for these issues. Without him, I'm not sure we'd even be having a discussion about the creative arts in a FN context.

While his older plays do suffer (I think) from some hesitancy- he raises major themes and then drops them, but honestly, this was the first native guy out there writing plays- this book doesn't hesitate at all.

I love his embrace of the feminine culture. It feels very authentic. KR

Buried In Print said...

That sounds like a fantastic evening indeed: I'd love to attend something like that to see him perform off the page. I don't read a lot of plays, but shall reconsider based on how much I enjoyed this novel!

Kate said...

Buried in Print - it was a very fun evening! Tomson Highway was up here in Thunder Bay this past winter as he had a new play premiereing at a local theater. I didn't get to see it, but unfortunately it didn't get very good reviews :-(