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Book Review: Motorcycles & Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor

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All across North America, and in fact around the world, the tradition of the trickster has a long and storied history among the older cultures of the world. Whether the Raven of the West Coast, Coyote of the plains, the bumbling Nanabush or Nanabozo of the woodlands, or whatever shape or form he has been given by his people, his purpose is the same. By epitomizing our worst traits, and putting them into action, he teaches us object lessons on how to live. By his own estimation he's the most intelligent, the bravest, the toughest, and generally all around best at everything, yet he invariably ends up falling flat on his face. Somehow or other he's always just tricky enough to outsmart himself and no one else.

The other thing all tricksters, no matter what their nationality, have in common is their complete lack of humility. No matter what happens, no matter how embarrassing the situation they end up finding themselves in, they never seem to able to learn the lesson that they were the ones responsible for their own downfall. While many of their predicaments are quite funny, there are occasions when our laughter at what happens to them is slightly tinged with sadness or even unease. For, while the stories are told to ensure we never get too full of ourselves, there are only so many times you can watch someone slip on a banana peel and find it funny until you start to either feel sorry for them or begin to wonder what it might be like to slip on one yourself.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any room in the modern world for tricksters anymore. Which is a pity, because we're currently a world that thinks way too highly of itself and has a far overblown sense of its own importance. We've all become so wrapped up in going about our business that we've forgotten how to live. Well, Canadian author Drew Hayden Talyor, a member of the Ojibway nation — or, as they refer to themselves, Anishnawbe (The People) — has decided its about time to see what would happen if the ancient trickster of his nation were to show up on a modern day reservation. What would he look like, what would people's reaction to him be, and what kind of mayhem would be the result? The answers to those questions and others can all be found in his first full length novel, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass, being published by Random House Canada on March 9, 2010.

The action takes place on the fictional Anishnawbe Reserve of Otter Lake, located somewhere in central Ontario, Canada. Maggie Secord has the usual problems single moms do with raising a teenage boy, but they're compounded by her decision to take over her late husband's role of elected Chief of the band. She's sure there was a good reason for her doing so at the time, but now she's damned if she can remember what that was. It's been especially difficult in the last couple of years as the government has finally decided to return to the band land that had been "borrowed" from them. Aside from all the paperwork, and meetings with all levels of government – county, provincial, and federal – this involves, it sometimes seems, every person living on the reserve having their own opinions as to how the land should be put to use and each of them spelling their plans out in detail for her.

As if things couldn't get any more difficult, there's the whole matter of the mysterious white stranger who showed up at her mother's house just before she died. He pulled up on a bright red 1953 Indian motorcycle, and marched into the house and into her bedroom like he was expected. Well, it turns out he was — for looking in his grandma's window, Maggie's son Virgil sees the young, blond white guy kissing his grandma in a very friendly manner. Now grandma Lillian Benojee was one of those who were taken off to the residential schools in an attempt to take the Indian out of native children. Somehow or other though she managed to hold onto her language and beliefs, while also accepting some of the white man's. It always amazed her children how she could go to church on Sunday, yet also know all the old tales about Nanabush the trickster and recite them and her prayers with an equal amount of sincerity. In fact she could talk about both Jesus and Nanabush as if she knew them personally.

While we never find out about the former, Lillian does turn out to have been buddies with Nanabush and it was she who invited him to show up at Otter Lake reserve to say goodbye to her before she left and to ask him a favour. Virgil, who was already suspicious of John after seeing him kissing his grandma, becomes even more so when he turns his attention to his mother. There's something decidedly odd about this white man whose eyes are always changing colour, can speak the Anishnawbe language better than most elders, and knows how to braid sweetgrass so perfectly. Aside from everything else, why do the local racoons seem to be following him everywhere he goes?

In Motorcycles & Sweetgrass Drew Hayden Taylor has brought the character of Nanabush the trickster out of the old tales of his people and has him up to his usual tricks. He's not just some fun-loving guy who plays practical jokes on people; he's also vindictive, selfish, and a liar. While he does make life more interesting for Maggie while he's on the reserve and helps her to have fun for the first time since her husband died, he also creates no end of problems for her with his solution for dealing with the land being returned to the tribe. Along the way Taylor manages to poke fun at his own people and politicians, while raising the issues of non-natives attitudes to land clams and Residential schools in a way which is humorous but at the same time doesn't diminish the reality of the situation.

People who aren't used to 21st century Natives are going to be surprised to hear how much life on a reserve sounds like life in any small town. Everybody knows everybody, and it's hard to have business that others aren't going to be sticking their noses in all the time. Of course they did use to be quite a bit different from those who are now living in neighbouring towns, and life on a reserve isn't quite the same as anywhere else. Yet, while Taylor manages to bring that reality to life, it's not the one we read in the newspapers all the time of despair and hopelessness. These are real people trying to balance the realities of living in the 21st century and holding onto their culture.

While Taylor doesn't shy away from the ugly truths that populate the history of the relationship between Native Canadians and their government, he uses humour to bring these issues into focus. Like the Nanabush stories of the past with their lessons on how to live a good life, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass slyly sneaks its message in when we're not looking. It's a gentle and timely reminder that while we may think we know what we're doing, there's a damn good chance that we're missing out on what's really important in our lives. We can get hung up in politics and issues all we want, but at the end of the day we all still have to look at ourselves in the mirror.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
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