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A Short History of Indians in Canada

by Thomas King

In his 2003 CBC Massey Lectures – published as the impressive The Truth About Stories – writer and academic Thomas King outlined a poetics of native narrative. It was an expansive perspective, incorporating both the macro (the inherent power of story and storytelling to shape the world) and the micro (the difference between public and private stories) into its schema.

At its core, however, was a simple truism: native storytelling is fundamentally different than non-native storytelling. As King describes it, native narratives are more open to ambiguity, often lacking clear moral centres and resolved endings. Often, the stories don’t seem to “mean” anything, resembling jokes or absurdist scenes calculated to elicit a laugh and little more. Mere entertainment. But, as King writes, “maybe being entertainment isn’t so bad…. Maybe entertainment is the story of survival.”

King’s new collection of short fiction, A Short History of Indians in Canada, could almost serve as a case-book for the vision of poetics outlined in The Truth About Stories. In the volume’s 20 short stories (in less than 250 pages), King explores the paradigms of Native storytelling, from the “entertainment” of the title story, which features an out-of-town businessman witnessing the migratory night flight of Indians over Bay Street, with workers onhand to clean up the bodies of those who fly into the buildings, to the more involved, including “The Baby in the Airmail Box,” which chronicles the mysterious arrival of a white baby at the Rocky Creek First Nations office, and the ensuing decision to make the child a prize at the weekly bingo game. “Coyote and the Enemy Aliens” is firmly rooted in both oral storytelling and the traditional tales of the trickster figure Coyote, here involved in the disenfranchisement of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War.

Strong though King’s Native storytelling is, he thankfully heeds his own warning in The Truth About Stories. On the issue of audience, King wrote, “What difference does it make if we write for a non-native audience or a native audience, when the fact of the matter is that we need to reach both?” Indeed.

A number of the stories in A Short History of Indians in Canada veer sharply away from strictly native storytelling. “Little Bombs” is a sharply observed black comedy about a woman who begins to place small explosives in her husband’s belongings; the question of why, and whether he deserves this treatment, emerges slowly and slyly from the wreckage. “States to Avoid” is a minimalist, dirty account of a marriage disintegrating, while “The Closer You Get to Canada, the More Things Will Eat Your Horses” is a darkly comic, dystopian yarn of a future in which the aged are hunted on game farms as a means of curbing society’s homicidal tendencies.

The juxtaposition of the two modes of storytelling within the book serves to create a dialogue between them, with each informing and influencing the other. This dialogue, along with King’s consistent and charming voice, lends the volume a surprising unity.

More impressively, King skillfully bridges the gap between the traditions directly. A handful of stories – including “The Garden Court Motor Hotel,” in which the pregnant mother of the world from traditional tales lands, not in a world wholly of water, but in the pool of the titular lodging, and “Where the Borg Are,” an amusing if slightly long meditation on the nature of European invaders framed by Star Trek – internalize this dialogue, marrying elements of both traditions to create a new form with the strengths of both its progenitors.