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Book Reviews Review: Jade Colbert looks at new work by Sara Tilley and Michael V. Smith and a reissue of Mini Aodla Freeman’s Life Among the Qallunaat

Duke

By Sara Tilley, Pedlar, 412 pages, $22

This dense, complex work defies easy labels. The cover says "a novel," but you'd swear it was a prose poem. Read deeper and see author and character share their last name. Is it a kind of memoir? All of the above? Duke is the story of William Marmaduke Tilley, who indeed turns out to be the author's great-grandfather. In 2004, Sara Tilley discovered a mass of family documents – letters, logbooks, journals, ledgers – which became raw material for this fiction. The story opens in 1906 with Duke recording his travels after his father has sent him from Elliston, Nfld., to work in Alaska. From there, the narrative cuts to 1899 and 1928, putting the reader in the place of archivist, piecing together a history of grudges, family secrets and reckoning. Tilley doing Duke's voice – repentant, unsure, dirty, loving – is one of the best ventriloquism acts you'll come across lately.

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Life Among the Qallunaat

By Mini Aodla Freeman, University of Manitoba, 275 pages, $24.95

The Inuktitut word qallunaat" can translate many ways – "people who pamper their eyebrows," "avaricious people" – but ultimately it denotes "Southerners": non-Inuit living south of the Arctic. When Mini Aodla Freeman's Life Among the Qallunaat was first published in 1978, its title was chosen to highlight the memoir's reverse-ethnography: a writing-back against qallunaat stories, most pointedly My Life Among the Eskimos. UMP's First Voices, First Texts series has republished this lost classic of indigenous writing, though it isn't a simple reprinting – more a director's cut. Based on the original typescript, this edition has been re-edited to retain its intended length and structure, restore Aodla Freeman's phrasing and idiom, and place the emphasis once more on the book's true subject: the James Bay Inuit in the midst of immense change. A subtle critique of the Canadian government of the day and an ode to "my Inuk way that I was born into."

My Body is Yours

By Michael V. Smith, Arsenal, 240 pages, $17.95

Let's begin with what Michael V. Smith's memoir is about. The first work of non-fiction by the author of Cumberland is about gender power and gender failure, and finding power in your failures. It's about bodies – about praying for a different one, giving it away, inheriting it from your father. At its core is Smith's perception of his inadequacy as a man, not because he is gay but because he is femme. To some, that may be counterintuitive, because in the popular imagination, still, the fey gay is a tautology: all men who sleep with men are marked by a discernible softness. What this (straight) perception misses is gay culture's continued fascination with all things butch. Note these concerns from the start because Smith does not approach his subject obliquely – his subject sneaks up on him. An affecting work of self-analysis that also captures the writer's struggle in the process.

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