Children's Books

MUSH HOLE: MEMORIES OF A RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL, Maddie Harper, Illustrations by Carlos Freire, 17 pages, 1993, Sister Vision Press, Toronto: 1993. ISBN 0-920813-98-4

The title promises an intresting book. The text does not deliver. The illustrations are charming; the text -- what there is of it -- is a bore.

Maddie Harper probably has a story to tell about her childhood residential school experiences, later problems with alcohol on the reserve, and how she got involved in travel and discussions with "the people in Central and South America" that she apparently lectures to. But she doesn't tell it here, or even begin to. There is no indication in the published work that she is able to do so, either by talent or by inclination.

Sister Vision Press, on the title page but not the cover, says the text is "as told by" Harper. It looks to me like about a five minute tape recording, whether from a talk Harper gave somewhere or over the phone with someone who then transcribed it. Seventeen pages isn't much for even a children's book, but when you consider that half of those are full- page illustrations, and that on the facing text pages usually less than half the page is filled, what we have here is not a book of any kind, it's 3 to 5 minutes of transcribed talk that's been printed up and illustrated, as if there were a story being told here. Sister Vision has incorrectly presented the little segment of a spech or whatever it is, illustrating and laying it out as a young children's story. If Harper had been capable of writing her own story, it might have been one for adolescents.

Quantity -- too short to be even a little children's book -- is not really the major problem. The major problem is quality. Harper cannot write and is not a storyteller. She has no way at all with words, and she uses abstract political speech-like declarations to evade telling her own story, it wouldn't even be a very good political speech.

It's more like the abstract of a summary being told to a counsellor than a story. Harper describes her own experiences. "I was confused and not feeling good about who I was." Yeah, that's the language of counselors and mental health types, but it ain't the stuff of stories. Stories are composed of events, actions, emotions and people. Too, good counselors whether of psychological or traditional persuasion, would accept Harper's level of evasion only as a starting point. "Drinking is where I found my escape. I didn't have anywhere else to turn and I wasn't fortunate enough to be able to go to Elders, like we have today." Oh, yeah yeah yeah. Tell it to your white counsellor, maybe she'll buy that one. Ellllddderrrs! the latest thing! Says she discovered 'em in 1980.

"When I reflect back on it now, it is very emotional for me. Now I can talk about it."

Maybe so, but not (apparently) in such a fashion as to produce a book anyone, any age, would want to read.

Sister Vision's motives in publishing this undistinguished excerpt are obviously not cynical financial ones -- they are seeking cultural and educational outreach materials, not just any old Indian product for a profit-motivated booklist. But their poor judgement in publishing this does no Native causes any good. It is likely to discourage Native fledgeling authors of real talent to see this kind of thing published, and the unfulfilled promise of the interesting title could cause Native schools to waste scarce book budget on it. What is worse is that publication as a book validates Harper in her lack of self-knowledge, expressed there, which is potentially dangerous to her (if it's anything other than a bit of some routine lecture).

For positive comparison, as a storybook, for young readers that is both interesting and educational, one can look at My Name is Seepeetza (Douglas & McIntyre, 1992), by Shirley Sterling, a Salish woman (incredibly, Harper's tribe is not mentioned anywhere in the Sister Vision-created book). Also a first book (first Novel, the publisher says) this seems a fair comparison. It's a real story, told by a real writer and forms a real book.

A rougher experience -- one it was tougher to survive -- is recorded by a powerful and experienced writer (not a fair book comparison for any novice, but certainly an example of appropriate recommended reading about Native residential school experiences). This is Parry Island Ojibwe intellectual Basil H. Johnston's Indian School Days (Key Porter, 1988, Canada; University of Oklahoma Press, U.S.). K. Tsianina Lomawaima, an American Hopi woman, reflects in a more balanced, analytical and critical way (but not impersonally) on her residential school experiences in They Called it Prairie Light: The Story of the Chilocco Indian School (University of Nebraska, 1995), which as its subtitle indicates is not only and not primarily a personal memoir; not a children's book, but suitable for some high school readers.

--Paula Giese

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Sunday, August 18, 1996 - 7:22:15 AM