In this YA adaptation of his 2015 feature film, Fire Song, Adam Garnet Jones offers up an array of real issues facing people living on reserves in Canada as seen through the eyes of teen protagonist Shane. There’s the high rate of suicide – the novel opens with the hanging death of Shane’s sister and his mother’s subsequent emotional shutdown. There’s also poor housing; lack of employment opportunities; drug and alcohol abuse; sexual and physical abuse; murdered and missing women; children raised without parents; fighting between bands; lack of band funding for post-secondary education; lack of band autonomy because of the federal government and the Indian Act; and traditional ways versus Christianity.
All of these are facts of life on Shane’s Anishinaabe reserve in Ontario and much of it Shane experiences personally. While Jones can be commended for his thoroughness, the debut novelist hasn’t coherently and effectively woven all these narrative elements together.
When we meet Shane, he has a girlfriend but is in love with David, his sister’s best friend. Shane wants to move to Toronto where he and David can openly hold hands, but David would prefer to remain on the reserve and keep their relationship secret. Eventually, the couple is outed, and they decide to stay where they are. Considering today’s climate – in which the prime minister has offered a public apology to LGBTQ2S Canadians in the House of Commons and the Alberta government has introduced legislation to make it illegal for schools to notify parents if their children are members of gay-straight alliances – Shane’s struggle with his sexuality makes a natural focal point of Fire Song. In fact, press materials would lead one to believe that it is. But this aspect of the novel proves to be superficial. Jones squanders a valuable opportunity to probe deeply the life of gay people on reserves and the intolerance they have faced. Shane and David are subject to the same bigotry that would befall them in any small town.
Jones does turn many a beautiful phrase, though. It’s easy to visualize and empathize with the description of Shane’s connection to the reserve: “His heart beats under the ground and the roots of the trees spread through his lungs. He is home.” The poems by Shane’s girlfriend, Tara, are heartbreakingly raw and include some of the best writing in Fire Song: “Last we saw was the black / Sweep of her ponytail / Sun behind / Dazzling the air / Baby powder floating / Fairy dust stopping time / How can it be / That the smell of home and / the smell of lonely are the same?”
While Jones has a way with language and addresses relevant and urgent issues, the novel’s lack of focus results in a rambling diatribe about everything that is wrong on the reserve and not the tale of loss and growth it aims to be.