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Award-winning Ojibwa writer Richard Wagamese, a self-described survivor of "post-traumatic stress disorder" (PTSD), courageously navigates the psychological contours of this hostile terrain via the publication of two distinct works. In a novel, Ragged Company, he acknowledges the unheralded support workers from all the "drop-in centres, missions, shelters, and hostels," who, as he puts it, "showed me the way up when all he could see was down." In a memoir, One Native Life, he explains that the "stories" therein are therapeutically "positive" and "embrace healing." What is remarkable here is the sense of sheer spiritual luminosity Wagamese achieves in the very midst of gruesome tragedy - the capture, that is, of the eternal sky, or what he so beautifully calls an "impossible blue."

  • Ragged Company, by Richard Wagamese, Doubleday Canada, 376 pages, $29.95
  • One Native Life, by Richard Wagamese, Douglas & McIntyre, 257 pages, $29.95


Ragged Company begins with an engaging premise: To escape an Arctic cold snap, four homeless "rounders" - Amelia One Sky, a wizened old Ojibwa; a bereft ex-carver called Timber; an illiterate "innocent" nicknamed "Double Dick"; and a ferocious scavenger called "Digger" - all take refuge within a movie matinee. Entranced by the film (Wim Wenders's 1987 Wings of Desire), the four become movie junkies, and soon forge an unlikely intimacy with another habitual escapee - Granite Harvey, a disconsolate ex-journalist looking to lose himself in someone else's story.

Their lives take an abrupt turn, however, when Digger happens upon an unusually heavy pack of discarded cigarettes: inside, some cigarettes, three $20-dollar bills and an innocuous yellow stub. As luck would have it, the stub is a lottery ticket and Digger has won the jackpot: $13.5-million. But when the rounders try to claim their prize (Digger decides to share), they are deemed ineligible for lack of proper identification. "Square John" Granite - complete with driver's license, lawyer and bank manager - comes to their aid But, the freedom that money brings also affords refection, and the five (including Granite) confront some implacable demons.

Wagamese writes with brutal clarity. Amelia's narrative begins: "It was Irwin that started all the dying" and, by page 11, the body count is no less than nine - and the deaths are colourful: one by drowning, two by fire, a sub-zero exposure, a stabbing, two deaths by bludgeoning, a suicide and a rather expected seedy overdose. By page 273, we arrive at the unspeakable: "Two tiny feet stuck out of a five-gallon lard pail. ... Three months old. Drowned. Drowned in my vomit. Drowned in my puke." This is odious content proffered with stark and gutting gravitas. You will blanch.

The cause of such despair, for Wagamese, is systemic. And his indictment of, particularly, the missionary school system scathes. After the deaths of her brothers, young Amelia emotionally withdraws; the nuns label her "slow." As she explains, "I gave them nothing back because all I knew was the vast amount they had taken from me, robbed me of, cheated me out of, all in the name of a God whose son bore the long hair none of us were allowed to wear any more." Later, Amelia describes her brother Frank's coldness with deft jab at Christian "mercy": Frank was "searching for a peg to hang his life on. It was a cold, hard peg he chose - vindictive as a nail through the palms."

Wagamese finds alleviating balance through magical legend (Manitou Nodin, Nanabush the trickster, Weendigo the cannibal) and poetic swells of sensate imagery. Cinematic light, for Timber, dims into an embrace: "When those lights start to fade, slow and almost unnoticeable like falling into a dream, I let go, I allow myself to fall, sliding, sliding away from the monster cold beyond this place and into the soft, warm arms of the darkness."

There is also a rather eerie gentle reverence through the ruminant conversation of two hovering voices that intermittently comment on the lower rung of rounder-narrative. One voice, the spirit of a formerly abused (and grotesquely traumatized) victim, offers extraordinary acceptance: "Time isn't what we think. Not really. It's fragments, shards, pieces, and when we think back it's the pieces we pick up, not the whole." These "shards" are the perceptual remnants of trauma - partial, contingent and, finally, all we have. But it is enough, Wagamese suggests, considering the nature of the wound.

Wagamese's memoir, One Native Life, works from a very different palette. Delicate and strangely beautiful, each vignette (written in early dawn) seems to radiate from point to luminous point; the release of a jackfish provides redemptive silence, a stolen kiss unveils a sky, "suddenly blue," the discovery of the constellation Arcturus reveals a path to wonder, and a glimpse from the doe, Way-wash-ka-zhee, offers "a crucial joining, a shared breath of creation." The Ojibway language, too, sounds like the hush of winds.

There are also infectiously giddy cameos: As a runaway, Wagamese shared lemon pie with Muhammad Ali; as a "red-mined" journalist, he interrogated Pierre Trudeau; researching an art piece, he chatted with reclusive painter Norval Morrisseau; and with Johnny Cash, he bemoaned the loss of the communal living room.

But again we have a traumatic core. In a shocking revelation, we learn that his aunt broke Wagamese's left arm and shoulder by jumping on him (he was not yet one year old): For years, the palm of his hand, "was turned outward, and it atrophied and shrunk." When he was a toddler, she tied him to the ground and whipped him. And an uncle, afflicted by rage and alcohol, tried to drown him and his brother soon after.

Everything came to a peak in February, 1958, when the adults, who'd left for town to sell furs, got sidetracked during a drunken binge and abandoned Wagamese (still a toddler) and his siblings to the bush. The culprits again are systemic: "spiritual beggary" at the missionary schools, an alienating "vortex of foster homes," the violence of his adopted Presbyterian family, reams of racist slurs and a scar under his left eyebrow from "a police baton wielded during a protest in 1976."

But Wagamese has a tandem aim to personal healing, the promotion of Canadian "social greatness." Here, his tone is frank, pragmatic and persuasive. Having recounted his sense of pride as a young man, after safely driving a group of neighbouring white farmers back and forth during the harvest, he extends the image of careful driving to a metaphor for treaty negotiation: "There's no right or wrong in this. There's only honour and dishonour. That's the straight fact of it. There's only the harvesting of a common future, neighbours rallying to get the job done, bringing it home, the drive smooth and measured so as not to topple anyone."

Unlike the narrative closure of traditional novelistic form (well-rounded character arcs, happy endings) or the relatively stiff genre of autobiography (checkable dates, verifiable facts), memoir (French for "memory") implies a breathier text, a looser form of self-reflection, a more experiential and so impressionistic sketch of one's past. These impressions are not any less "true" - on the contrary, their impact is all the more felt due to their capacity to speak to emotion, mystery and faith. There is an evocation of privacy in memoir that evokes intimacy rather than proofs. This is Wagamese's gift: We like this man. And so, we listen.

But it is Wagamese's mesmerizing sense of spiritual communion that so deeply resonates: "We live with pieces of the sky inside us," he offers. "In our cells is the very stuff of space. The arc of our travel is wonderful to see, the trail of it incandescent, joined to an impossible blue." This is the language of trauma and its miraculous recovery, a beautiful and important Canadian work.

Karen Luscombe is completing a DPhil for Oxford University on modernist epiphanies.