"And I am guilty. Disgusting Orgies? I am guilty of it all. Blood dripping off my godless fangs, black in the flame-light roaring in the centre of the great-house. Cavorting heathens. Me, legs kicking up, naked member swinging, masks of bear and wolf and raven turning all about….”
As these powerful opening lines demonstrate, at the turn of the last century, George Hunt was in big trouble. Hunt was the brilliant, anguished son of a Tlingit mother and an Englishman, a mixed-race child who grew up on the west coast of North America during a time when European diseases and the corrosive effects of Western technologies and cultures were devastating his mother’s people. He married a Kwakiutl woman and was adopted into that coastal first nation, which like the Tlingit and the other first peoples of the Americas, was reeling under the devastating effects of colonialism.
In 1900, Hunt, a complicated, liminal figure who was both a shaman among his people and a respected field researcher for pioneering U.S. anthropologist Franz Boas, found himself in a Vancouver courtroom accused of participating in banned religious ceremonies. Worse, his enemies were spreading rumours that Hunt had not only defied Canada’s racist prohibition of his people’s rituals; he had also, they said, engaged in cannibalism.
Harry Whitehead, a British-based anthropologist and teacher of creative writing, has made Hunt, a real figure in British Columbia’s history, the protagonist of his powerful, ambitious, and flawed first novel, The Cannibal Spirit.
The story turns on Hunt’s trial in Vancouver and the dark, disturbing events that led up to it. The plot, which includes hand-to-hand combat, vivid dreams and seeming magic, guilty secrets galore and death-defying oceanic canoe travel, is fast-paced and full of surprises. The text is ornamented with lyrically beautiful descriptions of the B.C. coast.
Whitehead has a keen eye for the contradictions and tumults of his characters’ inner lives, and he weaves the voices of several characters into a compelling psychological portrait of a people on the brink of ruin. His characters, first nations, mixed race and European, are all persuasively drawn; Hunt, in particular, is a character of almost Dostoyevskian darkness and complexity, tormented by the loss of his son David, anguished about his failures as a healer, prey to spasms of uncontrollable rage and conflicted about whether his work with Boas is legitimate scholarship, or betrayal.
This is a brave and ambitious book that sets out to retrieve lost history and turn it into high literature. And in many ways it does. But the text, like its protagonist, suffers from a tragic flaw. Whitehead has too many of his characters speaking a kind of mangled, implausible pidgin, a blend of Victorian high diction and basic and ungrammatical English that is a constant distraction from the novel’s many virtues, at least for this reader.
Let me be clear. I am not saying the language attributed to first-nations characters is in itself racist, nor am I raising the “appropriation of voice” criticism that only writers with first-nations ancestry can legitimately tell first-nations stories. What I am saying is that the language Whitehead puts in the mouths of George Hunt and other characters does not ring entirely true as plausible human speech. Given the book’s other virtues, reading The Cannibal Spirit is far too often like hearing a beautifully written song sung off key. But first novels are almost by definition flawed. Whitehead may well give readers more accomplished work that lives up to the partial promise of this uneven, gallant first effort.
Tom Sandborn is a journalist, poet and activist who lives on unceded native land in Vancouver. As a guest at a potlatch at Alert Bay, he visited the coastline where The Cannibal Spirit is set.