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Crazy Dave

by Basil Johnston

Crazy Dave suffers a massive identity crisis as it is neither a memoir nor a native studies reference, though it purports to be both. Author Basil Johnston tells the story of David McLeod (Dave) and his mother, Rosa, and their lives on the Cape Croker Indian Reserve off Ontario’s Georgian Bay during the first half of this century. Dave was born with Down Syndrome, and author Basil Johnston sees in Dave’s different abilities and place in the community a metaphor for the Ojibwe people and their struggle to retain a distinct culture within colonial society. But despite Johnston’s credentials – he’s the first aboriginal ethnologist at the Royal Ontario Museum and the author of a stack of books including Indian School Days – this book is tedious and unfocused.

Memoirs should be written with the author acting as the lens through which the tale is focused, but Crazy Dave tells us little about Johnston’s relationship with either Dave or Rosa. Instead of a finely wrought portrait, here there are only generalities and a this-happened-then-this-happened-style reportage. Rosa is sketched as a harridan, with no emotional expression except scold or nag, and descriptions of Dave’s behavioural tics substitute for an actual personality. (Dave is also described by the author as “retarded,” “deprived,” “dumb,” “impaired,” a “half-wit,” and as his mother’s “possession.”) Furthermore, Johnston fails to explain how the social changes wrought by Cape Croker’s conversion to Christianity and assimilation into the dominant society changed Dave’s place within the community. Aboriginal people, despite strict societal mores, were once very accepting of those who were different.

Moving the scene where the author and the title character first meet to the beginning of the book from its current position two-thirds of the way through could have saved this book from its monotonous and linear structure. Crazy Dave fails as both memoir and history because the author is unable to enter either Dave’s life or the community on anything other than a superficial basis. For Johnston to also be an eminent ethnologist is, perhaps, the most poignant statement.