The fact that Richard Van Camp doesn’t have his own national radio show, à la the late Stuart McLean, is a bit of a disappointment. Van Camp is Canada’s greatest oral storyteller, a brilliant weaver of tales about the lives of Indigenous Canadians, especially those who live in the Denendeh, the homeland of the Dogrib Dene (Tlicho) Nation north of the 60th parallel. If you ever get the chance to see Van Camp at a reading, or any other literary event, drop everything and go.
Until he gets a radio show, there’s Moccasin Square Gardens, Van Camp’s new collection of 10 short stories. It’s a varied array, sometimes funny, sometimes not. “Knock, Knock” comprises a cute joke featuring a duo of Cree kookums. It’s sweet with a bit of Indigenous inside humour, but perceptive readers will get it. In “Super Indians,” a corrupt chief is given his comeuppance through a rigged bout of tug of war during a Canada Day celebration. And in “The Promise,” reminiscent of Tom Sawyer’s fence-painting adventure, one Dene boy convinces another to do all his chores in exchange for a new Intellivision game, B-17 Bomber.
These three stories are classic down-home tales about modern life in the Denendeh. Van Camp could have filled the entire collection with such fare and it would have been a fine read – nothing unexpected, but a fine read nonetheless. But Van Camp refuses to let the reader, or himself, off easy. His explorations into other genres are the collection’s highlights. Most of these stories retain the first-person oral storytelling technique, but the tone is quite different.
“I Am Filled with Trembling Light” is a bit of Northwest Territories noir in which a dying man accepts a mission to prevent a local gangster’s centenarian grandmother from being kicked out of her house. To do so, he must help a Cree Elder remove some bad medicine from a VLT machine in a rez casino. The medicine, in the form of a tiny spider, isn’t malevolent on its own but responds to the intent of the machine’s users. It’s a chilling, dark story, simultaneously realistic and magical – one of the best noir-style stories in recent memory.
But the collection’s finest entries are actually a duo of connected futuristic horror stories: “Wheetago War 1: Lying in Bed Together” and “Wheetago War 2: Summoners.” Cannibalistic monsters called Wheetago invade Earth, where they start devouring humans and stealing children. The Dene and other Indigenous people fight back; the two-part story takes up themes of human greed and climate change. This diptych forms a classic invasion story, up there with anything King, Straub, or Barker has written. But in Van Camp’s hands, it is also a powerful allegory about colonialism and its after-effects.