Saturday, March 06, 2010

Reader's Diary #587- Bren Kolson: Myth of the Barrens

Bren Kolson's Myth of the Barrens recalls her experiences as she spent nine months on the barrens of the Northwest Territories in the mid to late 1970s (4 months in '75, 5 months in '79). Bren, a Metis woman who was just beginning to explore her aboriginal heritage, shared her time with Louison Drybones (a Dene elder) and Richard Black (a white American from Wisconsin). At one point Kolson acknowledges what an odd assortment the trio make. To their credit, they get along surprisingly well considering their different cultures and experiences. There were moments, of course, when the three didn't always see eye to eye, but then they were human after all. I'd have doubted Kolson's sincerity if she had suggested otherwise.

In the introduction, Kolson describes a moment aboard a carriole, being pulled along by a dogteam. Up ahead, Richard guides the dogs, but Bren is in a fetal position at the back, left alone except for her own thoughts. It's almost a mystical experience as she talks about the rhythms rocking her body, mind and soul. Aloud she asks where her words go and she contemplates on her existence as the sound of her voice drifts into the night air.

It's a perfect way to introduce us to Bren, the woman who lets us into her daily routines and thoughts as she experience, for the first time, life on the barrens. Most of the rest of the book was gleaned from her journals, written as it happened in the 70s. It's not as philosophically or poetically heavy handed as the introduction, which is a good thing. As beautiful as the opening passage was, it would have gotten tedious after a while. Instead, Bren simply accounts for each day detailing the minute but often significant details of life on the land. The effects of wild cranberries on a rookie's stomach, lard freezing in the cabin, playing Scrabble while listening to a hockey game over the radio. Not only does she present it so vividly that I felt as if I was there, but I also felt her growth as a person.

Myth of the Barrens is an easy read, honest and unpretentious. Remembering that this was the 70s and there were different cultures and values involved, some readers, especially from a 2010 vantage point, might balk at the scenes of trapping and skinning foxes, some might object to scenes of Drybones disciplining his dogs with a chain, and some might object to the assumed gender roles (there were a few instances when Bren asks to accompany Richard on a hunting trip, he simply says no and she seems content to stay at the cabin and bake.) But Kolson, for the most part, doesn't do much in the way of defending any particular value. It was her life and this is what happened. What would you do in the same situation? Asking that question over and over, a reader could learn just as much about him/herself as Bren Koslon must have at the time.

On a side note, I'm not sure why the publishers put a picture of an inushuk on the cover. It's an Inuit symbol, none in Kolson's party were Inuit, nor do any Inuit or inuksuit play any role in the story.


Anonymous said... was a publisher's decision.

Wanda said...

I don't usually read much non-fiction but this one sounds like something I'd rather enjoy. Recent publication or something you picked up at the library?

John Mutford said...

Wanda: Published in 2009.