Motorcycles and Sweetgrass
by Drew Hayden Taylor
Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010
345 pp. $29.95
In Motorcycles and Sweetgrass, the first adult novel by one of Canada’s most prolific writers and playwrights, Drew Hayden Taylor, stories literally come to life. While lying on her deathbed, Lillian Benojee, the matriarch of the Anishnawbe community at Otter Lake, enlists the services of a former lover to help add a bit of magic to the lives of her family members. That man just so happens to be Nanabush – the Trickster – the central figure in Native mythology. True to his reputation as an unrelenting shit-disturber, Nanabush (alias John Tanner/Richardson/Clayton/Frum/Smith) brings with him more trouble than he’s worth, especially after he takes a shine to the overworked and underappreciated Chief Maggie Second, Lillian’s widowed daughter. Maggie welcomes John into her life as a much-needed diversion from her role as Chief, which is dominated at the moment by a politically contentious land deal that threatens to tear apart her family and the community at large. Never one to observe tidy distinctions between work and play, Nanabush sets his mind to helping his love interest personally as well as professionally– a plan that has disastrous, but oftentimes hilarious, consequences.
Complicating John’s scheme are Virgil, Maggie’s underachieving but unmistakably intelligent son, and Wayne, her enigmatic (some might say crazy) brother. Wayne has traded in the trappings of the modern world for the simplicity and seclusion of life across the lake. Though initially dismissive of Virgil’s suspicions of John, Wayne quickly identifies John as the Trickster, a character he learned about through stories that were told to him long ago by his late mother, Lillian. In coming to Maggie’s defence, Virgil and his uncle must deal with John, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, motorcycle-riding drifter, and with Nanabush, a sometimes-benign, sometimes-malevolent maker of mischief who “teaches us the silliness of human nature.” Their confrontation with John/Nanabush forces them to consider the implications of the fictional-made-real. If Nanabush is just “a made-up guy, from Native stories,” what does it mean – personally and culturally – for him to ride through town as real as any member of Lillian’s surviving family?
By inviting this question, Taylor prompts us to consider the place of stories and storytelling in the contemporary world. In one regard, a story is a repository of memory, a link in a chain that tethers the self to its inherited past. For Taylor’s characters, to remain ignorant of stories is to expedite the process of cultural forgetting. Virgil’s cousin, Dakota, never learned the Nanabush tales: her parents “hadn’t seen fit to fill her head with stories of Anishnawbe history or culture.” As a result, “Dakota knew more French than Anishnawbe, and more English history than Anishnawbe history. Her only connection to the past had been Lillian.” In the absence of stories, Taylor suggests, individuals risk separating themselves from their histories; thus, they lose an important sense of who they are. Whatever trouble he brings to the otherwise quiet Reserve, Nanabush compels each character to learn more about the tradition of Indian storytelling, a process that ties people to one another as never before. Wayne makes his way across the lake to educate Virgil, who, in turn, educates Dakota. In addition to teaching them individual lessons about how to be in the world, Nanabush and his stories teach Taylor’s characters nothing less than the meaning of cultural communality.
Stories play a more ambivalent role in the life of Sammy Aandeg, an aging alcoholic who is tortured by recurring nightmares about the time he spent in a residential school. A victim of abuse, Sammy cannot escape the past, and seems committed to destroying himself through substance abuse. For years, Sammy has been written off as a babbling lunatic, made doubly incomprehensible by his inability to speak English. John reveals, though, that there’s a certain method to Sammy’s madness, or at least a familiar poetic structure: while he speaks only in Anishnawbe, “he speaks in iambic pentameter. . . . You know, like Shakespeare.” As the casualty of an oppressive European education, Sammy views himself primarily through the lens of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which has often been read as a commentary on early colonial conquest. In an act of cultural rebellion, Sammy translated the plays of Shakespeare into his mother-tongue, thereby incurring the wrath of a certain teacher who got “incensed that this young Indian boy would dare to corrupt the most beautiful words ever written, by speaking them in a filthy bastard language.” Sammy uses the stories of his White oppressors as a mirror with which to reflect his own suffering. If those stories are the emblems of a life of abuse, so too are they the weapons he uses to subvert the ideologies of the dominant culture.
Remarkably, Motorcycles and Sweetgrass remains a very funny novel, even as the issues Taylor grapples with – violence, racism, alcoholism – are anything but funny. Humour never detracts from the seriousness of the cultural problems faced by the characters. Instead, it injects the author’s fictionalised universe with something very much needed in the real one: hope. By making us laugh, Motorcycles and Sweetgrass instructs and entertains. It asks questions and avoids offering pat, simplistic solutions to the problems facing First Nations communities today. If the novel teaches us anything, it’s that stories have a singular ability to illuminate minds and reveal possibilities. Taylor brings Nanabush to life in the world of today. In so doing, he offers a convincing case for the power of stories to tell us about ourselves and a future that we must face together.
Justin Pfefferle is a Joseph Armand Bombardier CGS-SSHRC Doctoral Scholar, and Ph.D. Student in the Department of English at McGill. There, he studies the culture and politics of later British modernism in poetry, film, and life-writing of the Blitz.
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