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Chief Lightning Bolt

by Daniel N. Paul

Notable Mi’kmaq elder and historian Daniel N. Paul (We Are Not Savages) makes a move away from his previously preferred genre to try his hand at fiction with Chief Lightning Bolt. Set in the 15th century, the novel recounts the legend of the eponymous figure, from his beginnings as a precocious child to adulthood as a warrior and hunter of great purpose to an elder chief who heroically leads his people in war but also in peace.

Chief Lightning Bolt presents an idealized image of a Mi’kmaq nation, showing them to be wise, honourable, living in harmony with their environment, going to war only when all means of compromise have been exhausted. The eponymous character – wise beyond his years; a strong warrior and hunter, but humble to a fault – showcases the best of these qualities, proving that even Indigenous writers struggle with the stoic warrior/wise elder tropes.

At times, the novel can be fascinating, as Paul weaves oral spiritual tales with the Chief’s life story, providing reasons for his actions. The book’s depiction of the political and cultural elements of Mi’kmaq is interesting, but only from on a macro historical level.

Overall, however, the story lacks depth, because all the characters – like Chief Lightning Bolt himself – are idealized images. All the Mi’kmaq in the book are honourable, upright people, with scarcely a dishonourable thought or action influencing any one of them. And the dialogue doesn’t resemble conversations between real people, but rather soliloquies, some a page or more in length, mostly extolling the more upright aspects of Mi’kmaq life in culture.  Most of the key characters are male, with female characters relegated to mother and wife roles supporting Chief Lightning Bolt and the other men in the story.

If you are looking for a kind of didactic parable, an oral-style history on how to live a proper Mi’kmaq life, Chief Lightning Bolt fits the bill. But in its lack of complexity and nuance, it falls short as a modern Indigenous novel.