Sunday, March 11, 2018

REVIEW OF FLY AWAY, SNOW GOOSE (five stars) By Ann Birch

I have read many books about the Indian residential schools, but this one is undoubtedly one of the best. Its main character is a spirited young girl named Yaot’l Snow Goose who lives a happy life in the forests and lakes of the Canadian North West until, on a visit with her family to Yellowknife to trade furs, she is seized by force and taken far away to Fort Providence to the Sacred Heart Residential School. At the same time, her boyfriend Sascho Lynx is also captured. The novel depicts their journey from innocence to despair to hope and happiness as they manage to escape from the horrors of the school and find their way back to their families and freedom.

Though the plot may sound familiar to readers, this one contains a number of surprises. Its authors, Juliet Waldron and John Wisdomkeeper, present their extensive research within vivid scenes that will linger forever in readers’ minds. For example, I cannot think of any other book that shows the cruelty of these schools better than the writers’ depiction of the hair-cutting that takes place as soon as the Indian children enter the institution.  Yaot’l waits, watching the youngsters’ hair being ruthlessly chopped off and knowing that when her turn comes, she must stand up to the enemy. When she bites one of the nuns, she is put into solitary confinement for weeks, a punishment that Waldron and Wisdomkeeper describe in harrowing detail. As Yaot’l looks out of the tiny window of her prison she sees a flock of snow geese flying south. “My own feathered family,” she thinks, “strong and free.” And then she collapses, thinking that she may never again be part of this happy band.

Her ensuing life at the school contains other horrors as well. But along with their description of the usual physical and sexual abuses, the writers offer some surprises. Many of the Indians from warring bands learn to forget their battles as they confront the priests and nuns. Not everyone associated with the institution is a monster—in fact it’s a M├ętis trader who uses his affiliation with the school to help Yaot’l and Sascho escape—and some of the worst bullying that Yaot’l endures comes not from the nuns but from a small coterie of Indian girls who seek praise for their cruelty from the Catholic hierarchy.

The most memorable scenes in the novel are perhaps those describing the escape of Yaot’l, Sascho, and two younger children and the suspenseful events of their long trek back to their families. As she huddles under tarpaulin in the escape boat, Yaot’l, whose name translates to Warrior, acknowledges her terror and wonders if she is no longer a warrior but merely a rabbit. Gradually, however, she regains her courage. The trader who helps the children escape returns to Yaot’l the precious knife on which her brother Charlie has carved a snow goose. At about the same time, she sees a flock of snow geese returning to their northern habitat and she knows for certain then that she will succeed in her struggles. The trader tells her and her friends, “You four are Indians again.”

It’s a lovely book from start to finish. I learned so much about the culture of these North-Western First Nation bands: their religion, their stories, their connection with the land. Most of all, I travelled with Yaot’l and Sascho on their metaphysical journey through the conflicts of life. It’s the very archetype of the journey that many of us must take in order to survive in a difficult world.


Many thanks to Ann Birch for her wonderful review of Fly Away Snow Goose!

~~Juliet Waldron

Monday, February 26, 2018

Possum Views Vultures

Books We Love Book Club: This month's free book:
Victorian German Pennsylvania
She was a mail order Bride


Happy sunshine a week or so ago...and who should I see, sitting in an toherwise empty field, but three enormous turkey buzzards standing on the ground, backs to the sun, wings stretched out so big, so long, the pinfeathers all poking out with its pale trim! They were apparently catching some back-warming rays after a long cold spell, all peacefully facing north, unconcerned about the highway beyond.

Cars racing about, as they do every day, none of the occupants paying any attention at all to the sight of these huge birds who are, for once, at rest, not performing their endless spirals on updrafts, not searching for the smell of death, the scent that signifies a nearby vulture meal.
                                                          "Glorious Battle"

Reality = Not so much

We have a lot of turkey vultures in this valley, more than anywhere else I've ever lived. When we went to Gettysburg, many years ago, the guide  the crowd on the walking tour spun quite a tale. It was about the hoards of vultures who came after the battle, crowding in huge, never-before seen flocks to feast upon the dead, both animals and men. Believable, as vultures have amazing olfactory abilities. I'd imagine they also communicate, group to group, in some way.

"Hey Eddie! I hear there's big doin's down the valley. A reg'lar banquet! Folks flyin' in from everywhere! 'Nuff for ever'body!*"

"Thought I smelt somethin' tasty on that hot wind blowin' up from the south. Let's spiral up this here thermal and go check 'er out!"

Our guide, after allowing us to savor that creepy fact for a few minutes, then went on to add that this was the reason why there were still so many turkey vultures in the area, even now, 150+ years after the mad-house convulsion of slaughter that was the Battle of Gettysburg. 

This left me metaphorically scratching my head. What do these still persistent armies of scavengers live on during the long generations since the marvelous three days of the legendary banquet? Do the vultures hang out with their young, telling and retelling their nestlings about the "thrilling days of yesteryear," as they dream of another episode of The Big Kill?  

Cathartes Aura is their (poetic, I think) Latin designation, which means Cleansing Wind. You might be interested to learn that a group of vultures on the ground are called a "committee" and as I ponder some committees I've watched in action--especially lately in our Congress--I think the name is apt. In flight, a group of vultures is called a "kettle." On the ground, at supper with a host of family and friends, they are--wait for it!--called a "wake."  

~~Juliet Waldron

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* with apologies to Cheech and Chong

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Ground Hog Day Mea Culpa

The lambs are born now in the cold and snow. The days begin to lengthen. Light candles for Her, Mother Earth is tilting us in the northern hemisphere toward  the sun once again.  

It's cold as hell today--not so much the temperature, but the wind chill, a howl out of the west. The birds motor through my offerings of black oil sunflower seed and I had to go outside with wet hair to refill their feeders and scatter more on the ground. 

The squirrels are (mostly) in hiding today, but another tree is being taken down in the neighborhood, and that's not good for the local wildlife. I'm still guilty as hell about the big silver maple we cut in autumn, as the wreckage of furry and feathered lives was visible (and audible, with squirrel on squirrel violence) all around. Precious housing units were abruptly gone and there were bloody fights over what remained. Humans don't realize what we do when we cut a tree--all that food, all that shelter, all that flood control--is instantly lost.

We worried that the dead branches that this kind of tree produces continually--silver maples of any age seem to be constantly in a state of semi-decay, with debris-filled holes and marching ants--would land on our roof or solar panels.  It's the second tree we've cut in the 30+ years we've lived here, but still it felt as if a giant hole had been punched in the canopy of green life with which we've surrounded ourselves. We love the trees and all that co-exists in their sheltering arms, so this removal was a tough decision.

Juliet Waldron

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