- Title: Fire Song
- Author: Adam Garnet Jones
- Publisher: Annick Press, 232 pages
Realistic teen books with heavy content usually generate two types of assessments: They are deemed either “problem novels” or “necessary.” If a difficult thing happens in the life of a teenage protagonist – addiction, sexual assault, a mental-health crisis – it can dominate all conversation about the book. These novels become drug books. Or mental-health books. Focus on the subject matter eclipses everything else.
“Necessary” gets tagged on when a title is the first of its kind or gives voice to a previously silent issue or group of people. Deeming a book necessary is often a legitimate and important observation, but too often it’s where analysis stops. The plot is described, it’s lauded for being groundbreaking, end of discussion.
Adam Garnet Jones is a Cree filmmaker and writer who first told the story of Fire Song on the big screen. He’s now written the novel adaptation of his 2015 award-winning film, and it’s definitely a tough read. (Though a worthwhile one: It was recently shortlisted for the CODE Burt Award for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Young Adult Literature.) Shane is 17 years old, Anishinaabe and living on a reserve in Ontario. He’s grieving his younger sister’s suicide and struggling with his mother’s depression, his sexuality and the possibility of leaving the reserve to move to Toronto.
Fire Song is unquestionably necessary. YA books featuring Shane’s contemporary, Indigenous, two-spirited perspective barely exist because the children’s and teen publishing industry is dominated by white people. Just over 1 per cent of the 3,700 books received by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2017 were by First Nations authors. The CCBC is American, but this data includes some international publications. Our national counterpart with the same acronym, the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, is working on a similar study. Suicide rates among Indigenous people in Canada are also many times higher than those of non-Indigenous people.
The subject matter and the voice make Fire Song important, but there’s a lot more here that makes it transformative. The book shows the complex decision-making processes Shane must undergo to confront and solve his problems. Unlike the scads of contemporary books about teens in the majority, Shane does not have the privilege of free, unfettered choice. He has to constantly drill down through several seemingly impenetrable layers of outside perception before he can move forward.
Firsthand experience with government assistance forces Shane to confront the fact that making good, logical decisions has little positive impact on his future. So much is out of his control. Because of a minor paperwork error at a reserve office, he’s ineligible for financial support to attend postsecondary school. He experiences “An army of smiling people in government offices and band offices saying ‘we want to help!’ and then explaining why they can’t.” Shane isn’t trying to establish himself as a victim or build a tidy dichotomy of good and evil, with settlers in the villain role. He’s genuinely grappling with the inescapable reality of living in a place where people “are speaking for people they’ll never know ... These priests, social workers, teachers, government bureaucrats, they’re all gravediggers in a war zone, doing their job with efficiency and compassion, but they’re convinced it’s hopeless.” If and when he does leave for university in Toronto, he’ll face another trap, having to fulfill the role of “noble Indian with a sense of humor and sturdy roots twisting back through history.”
Shane also has to contend with the expectations of his family and community on the reserve. With the loss of his sister, he’s responsible for his devastated, despondent mother and their house that’s fallen into major disrepair. All the while, he’s carefully managing his sexuality and trying to hide his involvement with David, the best friend of his dead sister. Shane deliberately tries to leave his room messy and look a bit unkempt to pass for what others will perceive as “a real boy.” Everyone around him, including David, treats the subject of two-spirited people with uneasy silence. Sexuality isn’t just another problem Shane has to contend with; it’s another layer of his reality that he has to work through.
Just as things start to look hopeful, more pain and loss comes in the last third of the book. But in the midst of these dark circumstances, Shane remains a beautiful and soaring character. He is deeply introspective, at one point seeing his own struggle over leaving the reserve reflected in an Anishinaabe story about destiny. He also remains inextricably connected to his sister’s spirit, seeing and hearing her all the time. The plot brings the problems, but the character of Shane brings hope. He’s never truly alone, never truly untethered, because of how deeply connected he is to his family, his culture and his spirituality. Seeing Shane maintain these connections in the midst of such hardship, rather than finding concrete solutions to all the big problems, is what makes this a rewarding reading experience.
One of the most affecting moments in Fire Song is when Shane realizes that “having nothing to lose isn’t the same as being free, but it might be the closest he’ll ever get.” This is not the same as the old adage of “you have to hit bottom before you can come back up.” Shane’s story is more than a linear descent followed by an upward climb out of hardship. It’s about power, and how difficult it is to excavate choice out of situations of real powerlessness. Fire Song is necessary because of its subject matter, perspective and voice, but remarkable because it so effectively articulates how choice is a privilege that Indigenous people such as Shane rarely get to experience in our country.
Shannon Ozirny reviews young-adult books for The Globe and Mail.