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One Story, One Song

by Richard Wagamese

“Hopelessness is isotropic,” writes ­Richard Wagamese in his new collection of personal essays, “the view in every direction is the same. That’s the nut of it. It’s hard to change when everything you see looks identical. It’s hard to expect more from the world when expectation is the most painful feeling of all.”

Wagamese knows a few things about hopelessness. The Ontario-born, B.C.-based Ojibway writer spent years on the street suffering from substance abuse problems until getting clean and sober and devoting himself to the written word. A one-time foster child taken in by non-native parents, he found community in his own culture through a renewed relationship with the natural world, and through storytelling. Land and story healed him, and continue to sustain him.

One Story, One Song comprises brief ­ruminations (most are shorter than three pages) on various topics, many inspired by an anecdote or observation from the ­author’s life. He talks about characters met while running a rooming house for former street people with his wife, Debra Powell. Tales of eagles, bears, fish, and other nonhuman life figure as well. Funny, tender, never bitter, the essays also relate the ongoing struggle for native rights in Canada.

Wagamese writes in a refreshingly unadorned style. Indeed, heavy topics like homelessness, alcoholism, and drug abuse, which could easily lead to preachiness or self-pity, are refreshingly unsentimental in their treatment. But Wagamese can be a little too plainspoken at times, even trite. This is particularly unfortunate in discussions of native spirituality, a subject that suffers from being grossly misunderstood by non-native people. While Wagamese’s sincerity is evident throughout, a more detailed depiction of his experiences within the native world would have been welcome. 

Still, One Story, One Song, which is basically about healing through community, should be read for the clarity of the author’s voice, and for its contribution to the aboriginal experience in Canada.