Motorcycles and Sweetgrass
By Drew Hayden Taylor
Otter Lake is a sleepy Anishnawabe community where little happens.” So reads the flyleaf of this charming and humourous book. But something is about to happen, and this yarn is a splendid way to begin your New Year’s reading.
It begins in that dark time when the children were being sent off to the white-mans’ school. Lillian Benojee is 15 and wants to learn.
Sam Aandeg is 13 and fights the school all the way, insisting on speaking Anishnawabe, and bearing the punishment that comes from such heathen behaviour.
Then we catch up with the community at Otter Lake many years later. Lillian, having lived a full life, including bearing 11 children, is on her deathbed. The family, including her widowed daughter Maggie Second, chief of the village, and Maggie’s 13-year-old son, Virgil, have gathered to say goodbye.
Weird Wayne, the youngest and favourite son, is still out on his island. He is, by nature, a recluse. On his island he practices some sort of native martial arts, of his own devising.
Just before Lillian takes her last breath, someone else shows up to see her off. He arrives on a bright red Indian Motorcycle. “He had a tall lean frame, and was dressed all in dark leather, except for one blue bandana tied around his left thigh.” On his helmet is the emblem of a screaming crow. His hair is long and blonde and his eyes are blue. Sleepy Otter Lake is about to wake up.
Chief Maggie has other problems besides her dying mother and an attractive stranger.
The band is dealing on some land, asking that it be added to their reserve.
This is complicated because the three levels of government are conditioned by history to take land from Indians, not give it too them. It adds up to paper work and headaches.
Virgil is not happy with the way the stranger is acting, especially towards his mother. Since Virgil skips school a lot, he has time to seek out the man on the red Indian Motorcycle.
He finds out that he lives with Sam Aandag, (now a mad alcoholic, destroyed by his Residential School experience). He finds that he has blue blue eyes . . . but not always. He makes bird sounds, like those of a loon or a crow, with amazing accuracy.
Virgil hears and sees other things, that need a lot of explaining. He’s just a kid, it’s time to call Uncle Wayne from his island for help.
Wayne and Virgil are a great team, but they may have to go back to the old stories to solve this growing mystery. Even the raccoons on the Reserve are gathering. What the heck does that mean?
This story walks a fine line between humour and pathos. There lots of magic here too, and some downright funny scenes.
Drew Hayden Taylor was raised on the Curve Lake First Nations Reserve (Anishnawbe). He has written stories and plays.
Peggy Freeman is a freelance writer living in Red Deer.