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Digging for Philip

by Greg Jackson-Davis

An angry young white man and an angry old Anishinaabe spirit meet, mellow, and move on in this ambitious first novel by Manitoba teacher Greg Jackson-Davis.

Philip, the 14-year-old protagonist, is an emotional and physical wreck. He’s not coping well with his father’s death and treats his mother abysmally. He’s got bad acne, shoulder pimples, canker sores from his braces, and glasses he refuses to wear. Based on the scrapes, bumps, and bruises he collects, he may be the most accident-prone character in Canadian young people’s literature. The antagonist – the spirit Tikumiwaewidung – has been dead for 220 years and is consumed by anger at whites. He’s physically challenged by the lack of a body with which to perform the Ceremony of the Dead for murdered natives, a service that might finally earn him passage to the Land of the Souls.

The two characters “meet” when Philip digs into an Indian burial ground while cottaging in Northern Ontario, and disinters the spirit’s skull. From that moment, Tikumiwaewidung’s wrath is let loose. Philip’s grandfather’s grave is desecrated. A tool shed burns mysteriously. When he can sleep, Philip dreams of the physical atrocities inflicted on natives in earlier centuries. It’s only when Tikumiwaewidung realizes he can gain his goal by using Philip’s body as a host that a truce occurs. As master and slave, the two take a journey that leads to greater understanding, respect, and redemption of sorts.

Some readers may take offence at Philip’s boorish disrespect and the swearing and nasty name-calling that liberally punctuate his conversation. The violence he wishes on his stereotypically irritating mother and the atrocities he witnesses in his dreams are described graphically. Violence also figures strongly in a sub-theme about bullying. But these concerns are likely the same factors that will engage the interest of serious YA readers today. Certainly, the book lends itself well to guided discussion.

Digging for Philip is a hard-hitting novel meant to honour the Anishinaabe people, but I wish the cover endorsement had come from an Anishinaabe person rather than from another Great Plains author. Although free book club guides will be available online, no guide was available when this review was written.