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Flint & Feather: The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake

by Charlotte Gray

Pauline Johnson’s poetry is often viewed today as sentimental and derivative, loping along to a dum-ti-dum-ti-dum beat long out of style. But don’t let Johnson’s fall from fashion keep you from reading Charlotte Gray’s biography of the poet, Flint & Feather. Johnson herself was an original, and Gray’s book is a fascinating read.

Emily Pauline Johnson was born in 1861 to George Johnson and his wife, the former Emily Howells, at Chiefswood, a Victorian villa on the banks of the Grand River not far from Brantford, Ontario. The large house, with its piano, parlour, and walnut woodwork, was set in the middle of the Six Nations Reserve, and the tension between Victorian standards and native values haunted Johnson all her life.

Johnson’s father was an Iroquois chief, an intelligent, handsome man who also worked for the colonial government. His wife was a proud British immigrant. These tensions helped create Pauline, a woman who, dressed in her own version of native Canadian costume, swept crowds up with her poems celebrating the Iroquois or Huron experience. Then, after a short intermission, she would appear on stage in gowns straight from London to recite her verses on patriotism and nature that brought down the house.

Johnson toured Canada, parts of the U.S., and England for nearly 20 years. Her shows were originally designed to promote her critically praised verses, but they soon became part of a scramble to keep her head above water financially. Gray vividly portrays Johnson’s multiple struggles: as a single woman trying to make a life for herself; as a poet seduced by fame; and as a person of mixed race embodying the conflicts between white and native culture.

Gray’s previous books explored the lives of such 19th-century Canadian women as the sisters Susanna Moody and Catherine Parr Traill and Isabel Mackenzie King, daughter of an exile from the Rebellion of 1837 and mother of a prime minister. Gray knows the period well and she tells, as Pauline Johnson would say, “a whacking good story.”