Saturday, March 25, 2017

Four book reviews: Regine Haensel; Margaret Cote; John D. Pihach; and Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos and Adriana Spahr

“Child of Dragons”
Written by Regine Haensel
Published by Serimuse Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95 ISBN 9-780993-903212

Saskatoon writer Regine Haensel recently released Child of Dragons, Book Two in her fantasy series, The Leather Book Tales. This ambitious publication follows her 2014 novel Queen of Fire, which was nominated for a High Plains Book Award. In the new novel we journey with restless sixteen-year-old Rowan as she searches for two missing children, is romantically pursued by two young men, and benefits from the protection of a foreign soldier with a penchant for making cryptic statements, like "There is no end to a circle … and when you stand at the centre you can see it whole" and "The moon rises in the evening, until it does not." There are numerous interesting characters in this hard-to-put-down tale, and the author does a splendid job of making each distinct and memorable with her keen gifts for dialogue and physical description.

The book's opening image depicts a small caravan of horse riders, oxen and wagons crossing a "dun-coloured land" near Aquila, City of Eagles, to Vatnborg, a city on a lake. Like all good writers, Haensel quickly moves from scenery to scene, and we learn that Rowan's saying good-bye to a father she's reconnected with after a long separation, the leader of the caravan is a woman named Ursallia, and a good-looking fellow traveler, Jernan - "He sits well on a horse" - has caught Rowan's eye. The story's told from Rowan's point of view, so when she's thinking about her past - her mother's death, Rowan's imprisonment in a castle with her father and younger brother, and the dark fact that she's killed a man - the back-story is seamlessly inserted.    

This is fantasy, so dragons, castles, legends, ravens, and ancient magic - including Rowan's bequeathed silver bracelet - are in grand supply. Late in the story we meet the soothsayer, Tristicus.

I'm impressed by how quickly I was drawn into Rowan's adventure. Whether I was shivering with her in the desert night's cold during the caravan, sailing toward an island ("the sail bulging with wind") to find the two children, or drinking yet another cup of "tisane" with her, I was there. Rowan, an herbalist and healer, has several opportunities to impart the benefits of bee balm, sage, coneflower and mint, for example, and it all seems credible and consistent with the plot. 

At one point the precocious heroine says "Such simple and common things we do while horrors go on in the world," and it's partly this deep empathy that makes her character so appealing. She also possesses a fantastic imagination, so at times even she's not sure if what she's "seeing" is a vision or just a young girl's fancy. "Am I dreaming?" she asks the wise Grandmother late in the book, and the woman answers, "Does it matter?"

Fantasy elements aside, this story strikes a very human chord in its exploration of family, and particularly, parents who've left their children, and how this affects those children for years to come. This is a fascinating book.


“Nēnapohš Legends”
Narrated by Saulteaux Elders
Transcribed, Translated and Edited by Margaret Cote
Syllabics by Lynn Cote, Glossary by Arok Wolvengrey
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-0-88977-219-9

Nēnapohš Legends, Memoir 2 in the First Nations Language Readers features seven traditional Salteaux stories I'm happy to have been introduced to. As explained by Margaret Cote and Arok Wolvengrey, these language texts have been used to teach Saulteaux (Plains Ojibwe) in classrooms at First Nations University of Canada in Regina, and prior to this they existed exclusively as oral stories shared between generations.

The central character is Nēnapohš (pronounced NAY nuh bohsh), the "'trickster' or culture-hero" in the Saulteaux tradition. Cote First Nation Elders Andrew Keewatin, John F. Cote, and Cote's daughter, Margaret Cote, a retired Assistant Professor of Salteaux Language Studies, are to be congratulated for preserving these stories via sharing them both orally and in this text. Aside from the fun and imaginative bilingual tales, Nēnapohš Legends includes a Saulteaux syllabary, an extensive Salteaux-English glossary, and detailed ink drawings by Denny Morrison, a Salteaux artist from Ochapowace First Nation.

The first story, "When the Earth was Flooded and How Nēnapohš Recreated It," shares many aspects with the Noah's Ark story, though here God is "Great Spirit," the Noah figure is Nēnapohš, and the ark is "a big raft" which saves its builder and "some of his animal brothers," like beaver, otter, and muskrat, who is responsible for diving and returning with the handful of dirt that Nēnapohš blew on to recreate the world. Wolverine and wolf also play major roles. The final line - "That's as far as it goes for now!" – gives the story that storytelling flavour, and indeed, all of the tales end similarly.     

Most of these very short mythological stories begin with the main character "out walking around". Soon he gets bored, or hungry, or mischievous, and something dramatic happens. The one-page legend "Nēnapohš and the Owl” provides an explanation as to why the owl can turn its head around. The brave owl was attacking the protagonist as he walked through the forest, then Nēnapohš "got a good hold of the owl's head" and broke his neck. In another story, "Nēnapohš and the Geese," readers learn why Geese always fly in a "V" formation.   

Humour's especially evident in "Nēnapohš Makes Red Willows". Here sly Nēnapohš is roasting ducks on a fire and instructs his own "rear-end" to stay on watch for predators while he sleeps. When wolves appear, "his rear-end let out a loud fart to wake him up," but when hunters later arrive and quietly eat the ducks, Nēnapohš isn't warned, and his rear-end is punished by having to sit on a "red-hot rock".

Nēnapohš is simultaneously portrayed as playful, dangerous, clever, and dim-witted, ie: at one point he thinks he's eating dried meat left by his grandmother on the snow, when really he's so hungry and dazed he's been eating his own scabs. Chickadee teasingly sings the truth, and "That's as far as it goes".

This University of Regina Press book squarely hits the mark, both as a teaching tool and an entertaining read, and Morrison's welcome illustrations are worthy of frames.
“Mudeater: An American Buffalo Hunter and the Surrender of Louis Riel”
by John D. Pihach
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$27.95  ISBN 9-780889-774582   

It's significant when an illustrious individual appropriates an ancestry, ie: Archie Delaney reinventing himself as Grey Owl. Frontiersman Irvin Mudeater had Grey Owl beat: Mudeater switched back and forth between Indian and European ancestry each time he crossed the 49th Parallel. Born to a Wyandot Chief in Kansas, Mudeater's story encompasses buffalo hunting, stage coach driving, the Civil War, and criminal activity that saw him flee to Canada in 1882 and become "Robert Armstrong," the white man who settled in Prince Albert and was credited (with two others) for bringing Louis Riel into custody in 1885.

Yorkton writer John D. Pihach became fascinated with Mudeater/Armstrong's Wild West and Canadian stories after learning that his neighbor was the great-grandson of the famous man, and that Armstrong had written an accessible and unpublished memoir. Considering Armstrong's storytelling penchant, "some of his claims relating to certain historical events appear unconvincing," but Pihach believes the "savage nature" of his "Indian" encounters are reliable. The book includes the memoir, photographs, and reports concerning Riel by reporters and others.

Mudeater's great-grandfather was found as a starving and abandoned Caucasian child by a party of Wyandots; the boy was eating riverbank mud to survive. The Wynadot's adopted him and christened him Mud Eater. Irvin Mudeater's father was politically active, serving as a longtime Wynadot chief and council member who helped establish Kansas, and led his beleaguered nation from Kansas to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Interestingly, there's no mention of Mudeater's own Indian ancestry in his memoirs, thus avoiding a conflict of cultural interest when he aided in Riel's arrest.

Mudeater's spectacular experiences included nearly losing his life to Cheyenne warriors while driving a freight wagon over the Sante Fe Trail; "[practicing] scalping on dead bodies" after a battle; joining Buffalo Bill's crew to supply meat for railroad workers; making pets of an eagle and panther; and killing a man "while on a drunken spree" in Wallace, Kansas.

In 1883 Mudeater was living in Prince Albert, captivating folks with his Wild West tales (including the killing of 126 buffalo in one day), and transporting settlers from Qu'Appelle to Prince Albert. During the 1885 conflict he became a chief scout for General Middleton, then a hero upon Riel's capture. Post-1885,  Armstrong became a family man but kept things colourful re: shenanigans that included shooting the toe off a man, and returning to live in the US with two of his daughters before retirement in Calgary, then a final return to the US.  
Mudeater's sometimes rough and often boastful memoir ("at the age of fifteen years, I had a man's experience and I had almost said a man's strength") and the articles and oral accounts concerning him sketch a captivating portrait of the pioneer, but Pihach admits that much of the hot-tempered hero's life remains a mystery. Anyone who enjoys tales of the Wild West and/or the Riel Rebellion – and wishes to hear them straight from the horse's mouth - will find much to chew on in this entertaining book.   

“Virgin Envy: The Cultural (In)Significance of the Hymen”
Edited by Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos and Adriana Spahr
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$27.95  ISBN 9-780889-774230   

Until I read Virgin Envy: The Cultural (In)Significance of the Hymen, I never knew that viragos are Latinas who assume "'male' traits and [transgress] popularly accepted gender roles.'" I didn't know that sexual abstinence in Stephenie Meyer's popular Twilight series is a subject of academic study, nor was I aware of the sketchy business of virginity testing as a literary motif in both medieval romance novels and contemporary English Orientalist romance literature. The trio of editors for this illuminating eight-essay collection by University of Regina Press invite readers to consider the myriad political, social, cultural, and literary complexities concerning the "utter messiness" of virginity.

Firstly, the editors tackle with the difficulty of a singular definition of "virginity," and point to subjective and objective meanings, and the notion that the hymen is not always "the signifier of virginity," (boys and queers lose their virginity, too). The editors and writers of this text "go beyond the hymen" in their considerations of virginity, and this makes for an especially provocative treatise. They also look at perceptions around losing one's virginity, ie: at what age does it become embarrassing to remain "intact"?

Virginity is a serious subject, but one need only read the section titles to ascertain that the editors also have good fun with their disparate material. Part 1 is titled "Too Much Pain for Such Little Reward," and the essays in Part 4 appear under the title "F*ck: They Entrapped Us In Social Issues And Politics".

The first essay, by researcher Amy Burge, examines virginity testing both historically and in literature, comparing medieval romance approaches to those in contemporary romance literature. Historical tests included the ability to carry water in a sieve, and how loudly-and for what length of time-one urinated, while folk stories and medieval romances included magical proofs, ie: "a harp that plays out of tune when a non-virgin approaches." Burge explains that the problems with virginity testing include veracity and the "patriarchal structures" that make virginity testing an "almost exclusively female discourse."

It's interesting that the editors have selected contributors with disparate credentials, ie: Gibson Ncube earned a PhD (in French and francophone literatures) in South Africa, three have connections to Brock University, and Jodi McAlister researches the histories of love, sex, romance, and pop culture, and is linked to Macquarie University in Sydney. The latter notes that contemporary romance novels are largely written by and for women, and "the hymen is regularly represented," but the pain associated with virginity loss is becoming less of a "gory" emphasis than it was in previous texts (in which blood and passing out was frequently featured), and female pleasure is receiving more emphasis. 
From the Virgin Mary to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, from British director Derek Jarman's experimental 1976 film Sebastiane to HBO's True Blood vampire series that unsettles "socially conservative ideologies, such as female virginity and sexuality," Virgin Envy delivers a rip-roaring ride (bad pun?) through the ins and outs (again?), perceptions and misperceptions of virginity now and then, here and there.