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the daily review, tue., mar. 1

Richard Wagamese

Best known perhaps for his novel Keeper 'n Me and his memoir One Native Life, Richard Wagamese, an Ojibwa who lives with his wife Debra in a cabin overlooking Paul Lake outside Kamloops, offers readers numerous vignettes of his life and beliefs in One Story, One Song.

Wagamese's content is fully rooted in the landscape he inhabits. As he says in the introduction, "The stories and reflections in this book spring from our time at Paul Lake. They are presented in four sections, based on the principles our traditional teachers sought to impart: humility, trust, introspection and wisdom. These four principles are the cardinal points on the Medicine Wheel, and they represent the essential qualities each person needs to cultivate a principled life."

With such a purpose in mind, Wagamese's stories tend to the didactic, and often the repetitive, but the gentleness of tone undercuts any bossiness, and because Wagamese has endured so much in his life, his stories resonate with deeply felt emotion. He was adopted at a young age, a victim of the residential school system; he never attended, though his parents did.

The problems created by that massive attack on aboriginal cultures are still having (and will continue to have) seriously deleterious effects. As a child, Wagamese often felt out of place, unloved and disconnected, and those negative feelings resulted in homelessness and alcoholism. Fortunately, with the help of wise elders and friends and, it must be said, his own courage and strength, Wagamese was able to overcome much of the heartache and is now in a settled and happy (and healthy) marriage with Debra, for whom he gives thanks throughout this book.

It's hardly a new idea that human beings feel better when they are connected to place and have knowledge of the natural landscape, but Wagamese calmly takes the reader along on his walks with his dog, Molly, and describes not only what he sees but how he feels. He writes about the flora and fauna around him and incorporates the stories of his people.

Everyone has a story, and everyone needs a story, and to a great extent, that is what makes this book so effective. Whether Wagamese is telling us about the bears near his cabin and his respect for them (they were there first) or his utter disgust at the carnage left by disrespectful hunters who have killed deer and taken only their heads as trophies, the details put us in the picture and give us the experience.

But it's not just the natural world that is important. People are part of the world. Wagamese celebrates his relationships with his wife, other family members, friends and neighbours. It's clear that he believes we are all in this life together, and should start acting like it. And it's not just words that he employs.

His wife Debra bought a dilapidated rooming house in Kamloops and the two fixed it up hoping to offer marginalized people, the poor and the sick a decent place to live. It was extremely hard work, as the couple was committed to creating a safe haven, which meant no drugs or alcohol abuse or violence.

Wagamese compares the treatment of native people and the homeless, and argues that both groups have spawned industries around them. People have to be able to speak for themselves, not studied endlessly: "Homeless people need to tell their stories, and we need to listen to them. It isn't sufficient to treat the symptoms. We have to treat the disease, and we can only do that if we get to the bottom of what causes it."

The short pieces in One Story, One Song remind us of human beings' place in the world: We are a part of it, not masters of it. And by sharing our stories we share ourselves. By listening to others' stories, we share their lives and perhaps gain connections. One Story, One Song is all about connections, something we all need.

Candace Fertile teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria.

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