“Come sit by the fire” has long been an invitation to hear a story, to gather as a community as the light dims to listen and learn together. Two of our master storytellers, Harold R. Johnson and Tomson Highway, embrace this approach with their latest books, Johnson quite literally, and Highway with a newer, multiple-media approach. The resulting books, similar in their approaches to storytelling and their emphasis on the crucial value of story, are both small treasures.
The Power of Story, the posthumous volume from Johnson, who died earlier this year, begins with boats approaching the writer’s small lakeside cabin. A multi-faith group, writes Johnson, “including Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Judaists, and members of First Nations” has come to hear his views, as the book’s subtitle summarizes, “On Truth, the Trickster, and New Fictions for a New Era.” “Soon everyone was sitting in a circle around the fire I had started when I first heard the boats approaching. This is what I told them.”
A member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation, Johnson worked as a miner, logger, mechanic, trapper, and fisherman before graduating from Harvard Law School. He worked in private practice prior to becoming a Crown prosecutor. His teachings – for The Power of Story is nothing if not a teaching, in the most sacred sense of the word – are drawn from his experiences and his observations of history, culture, and the natural world around him. Central to his teaching is the power of story. Johnson, however, doesn’t limit himself to the personal power of narrative; rather, he digs historically deep, exploring how massive societal and political shifts have been the result of new stories. The shift from hunter-gatherer to agrarian societies, for example, required a shift in story. In relation to small hunter-gatherer groups, Johnson writes, “agricultural societies were much larger and needed a bigger story to hold them together. So we invented religion.” This new story led to monarchy, which was broken down when the story changed again.
He writes early on, “Right now we are in the transition between the industrial era and the technological era. The dominant story is changing, and this is when we can make a difference.” The Power of Story is a profoundly hopeful book, rooted in the malleability of stories we have taken for granted (the justice system and the government, to name but two), and the power of humans building out from their lifestories to effect those changes. It is also an intimate, approachable book, grounded in the act of teaching, with Johnson making and offering tea, or suggesting the need for blankets as the night grows cold.
Laughing with the Trickster, the new book from Cree playwright, musician, and novelist Tomson Highway, (subtitled “On Sex, Death, and Accordions”) takes a similarly casual approach, but writ large. As the 2022 instalment of the CBC Massey Lectures, the book chafes somewhat between forms (is it a book to be read, or the record of an event? Neither? Both?), but this friction is oddly appropriate. Laughing with the Trickster is – in part, at least – a study of different approaches and forms, in terms of religion (the book examines key differences between Christianity, classical mythology, and Cree mythology) and language (English, French, and Cree). Highway’s approach is dynamic, and based in humour. His recurring cataloguing of the differences between cultures rooted in the respective humour of their languages is both enthralling and frequently hilarious. An anecdote about a traditional funeral feast, for example, with a beaver stuffed with nuts as its centerpiece (“wink, wink,” Highway writes), serves as an opportunity for several generations of Cree women to debate the relative merits of young beaver versus old beaver; it’s a bawdy miniature masterpiece. As Highway writes, “Get ready. In English, you’ll cringe; in Cree, you’ll laugh.” (It is possible, and likely, that most readers will do both.)
In addition to the larger-scale cultural examination, Highway also roots the book in the events of his own life, tracing the line between personal memoir and cultural touchstones through to his work. Astute readers will note clear links to and echoes of plays such as The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing even when the connections aren’t explicit. Despite its lofty subject matter, most of the book feels utterly personal, and very intimate; the chapters may be performance pieces, later released on the radio, but the connection is as close as that of a small group around a fire.
Laughing with the Trickster is, in fact, so casual and seemingly offhanded that it doesn’t fully prepare the reader for its closing pages, an elegiac passage of such haunting beauty and frank emotion it will cause tears in many, while simultaneously uniting and contextualizing the previous pages. It’s a stunning, powerful moment, and almost completely unexpected. It’s the sort of flash of chaos one might expect from a trickster, such as Highway himself.
That element of the Trickster is threaded through both works, “a laughing deity,” as Highway writes, who “virtually governs the way our tongues move, the way our blood flows, the way our lungs pump, the way our brains pop, dance, and sizzle.” For the reader, the Trickster is the breath of these books, and their promise; both volumes serve as shocks to the systems around us, cracking and remaking the world as only stories can.