Although Glass Beads is billed as a collection of short stories, it works excellently as a panoramic, polyphonic Bildungsroman, following the lives of four Indigenous friends from the early 1990s to the late 2000s.
The first in their respective families to live long-term off the reserve, all four characters are out of place among both their own people and the wider world, in different ways and to different extents. Despite their diverging life paths they fit well together and understand one another, as they struggle variously with alcohol abuse, cultural disinheritance, racism, and class structure.
Nellie is a weary feminist and anti-racist killjoy, pointing out the root causes of various problems and social ills while looking to her education and a career in law as her ticket away from her troubles. Julie, staggeringly beautiful, drifts through life with a lack of self-confidence, never truly recovering from the deaths of her mother and her baby. Everett, an unreliable womanizer, goes through a cultural and spiritual awakening in his early thirties, becoming upset that he’s never learned Cree and knows little about his cultural background. Taz has big political ambitions and a lot of vision, but still cannot escape his origins or other people’s assumptions.
Dumont’s talent for comedy shines in a great deal of snappy, wry wit. She uses this both for universal concerns like interpersonal interactions (“Their relationship was a broken vase that Nellie kept gluing together. And then once she got it to stand, she would proclaim, ‘Look at it! It’s beautiful’ while everyone else knew it was a fragile piece of shit”), but also more politically. Discussing the situation of native people in Canada, Nellie keeps “wanting to make it sound better than it was but failing as the night went on.”
Glass Beads is deeply political but never ideological. Its characters are full and complex. Like Catherine Hernandez’s recently released novel, Scarborough, this book tells the stories of people vastly underrepresented in CanLit.