Friday, August 19, 2011

Reader's Diary #751- Bernard Assiniwi (translated by Wayne Grady): The Beothuk Saga

An Inuk man I once met in Rankin Inlet told me that he hated Newfoundlanders because they killed all the Beothuks. What do you say to that? I think I stumbled through a "but not everyone was responsible... I don't even know when my ancestors came over... hey, I didn't kill anyone... I'd never... not something we're proud of..." Whatever I said, it wasn't elegant. Arguments about "the past being the past" aside, Newfoundlanders did kill off all the Beothuks. Every last one. Shanawdithit died in 1829 and there will never be a Beothuk again.

I can't speak on behalf of all Newfoundlanders, of course, but I believe that particular genocide is now a part of our psyche. It's a reminder of the horrors we are capable of. I don't mean us as Newfoundlanders, or those with British or Irish roots or whatever, suggesting that anyone with those backgrounds is a monster, but I mean humankind in general. If the conditions are just wrong, anyone can feel justified in killing another. But I know the Beothuks are always in the thoughts of most Newfoundlanders, usually in the subconscious but often not. Near where I grew up you'll find the Beothuk Interpretation Center. My sister was once the star of a musical called Shanawdithit. The Newfoundland coat of arms features two Beothuks. There's all the literature: Kevin Major's Blood Red Ochre, and Michael Crummey's River Thieves to name but a couple of the more popular titles. But as the Inuk man I mentioned above (who, for what it's worth, is also capable of hatred towards a fellow being) and as Bernard Assiniwi have shown me, Newfoundlanders with our repressed guilt and shame aren't the only ones who find themselves pondering the Beothuks. Bernard Assiniwi was a Cree author and with The Beothuk Saga (first published as La Saga des Béothuks), I'm left wondering what impact the Beothuk fate must have on the aboriginal groups in Canada, not to mention the ones still in Newfoundland and Labrador; the Inuit, the Innu, the Mi'kmaq, the Métis-- none of whom, you'll note, are on our coat of arms.

All the anthropology, sociology, history, and politics aside (as best as you can push all that aside), and getting back to the point of this post, is Bernard Assiniwi's The Beothuk Saga a good book? In my opinion, not really.

The Beothuk Saga suffers most because of the beginning. Divided into thirds; "the Initiate," "the Invaders," and "Genocide," it's "the Initiate" that almost makes the book intolerable. Set during first Beothuk contact with the Vikings, circa 1000 AD, this part of the book is preoccupied with one thing: sex. It's not that some mention of sex wouldn't be worth mentioning. It might be interesting to read Assiniwi's thoughts on how the Beothuks felt about sex. It might be good for character development. It might even be used purely for entertainment. Unfortunately it reminded my the later books of Jean M. Auel's Earth children series. The constant orgies become impossibly boring! I get it, the Beothuks were sexually enlightened. Now move on! Did they eat? Did they hunt? Did they tell jokes? Nope. Just sex. And with the exception of sometimes increasing the population, none of it really influences the latter story.

But if you can slog through the first 133 pages, the rest of the book gets better. Writing wise, I enjoyed how the first 2/3 of the book were written almost Bible-like, with definitive statements and frequent reflections back on important events that lead to the current events.
In the entire memory of the Beothuk and the Addaboutik, that is, in the entire history of our people , Anin's family was the largest. All his children increased the Bear Clan in fewer than twenty season-cycles.
Kind of reminds me of Abraham's lineage in the Old Testament.

With the final third of the book, when Demasduit and Shawnadithit become memory keepers of the Beothuks and therefore the narrators, the writing takes on a more common narrative feel. It helps since the story approaches more modern times. It's now only the late 1700s, early 1800s but the style shift seems more appropriate. It also becomes more and more the story of one versus the story of a nation.

I think I was saddened most by Assiniwi's approach to the book. All 3 sections revolve around contact with white people; the vikings, the Portuguese, French and English. I've often made excuses for nonfiction historical books only focusing on these parts in aboriginal history, arguing that researchers rely on written records and as aboriginal groups were oral societies until European contact, less information is available. However if it's fiction anyway, why not tell more stories about life pre-contact? (Zachariah Kunuk did this brilliantly with Atanarjuat/ The Fast Runner.) The end of the Beothuks, and what brought about that end, is even more tragic when it has come to define them.


Kailana said...

I have actually had this book on my TBR for years, but this is the first time I have ever seen a review of it. I am not sure what to think now...

John Mutford said...

Kailana: I hope you'll think, "I need to read this sooner rather than later," just so I'll have someone to discuss it with!

John Mutford said...

(11/13 north of 60 books, 25/13 pan-Canadian books)