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Book Reviews Writer Richard Van Camp creates an Indigenous world full of imaginative power in Moccasin Square Gardens

Richard Van Camp.

William Au/Handout

Moccasin Square Gardens by Richard Van Camp.

Handout

  • Title: Moccasin Square Gardens
  • Author: Richard Van Camp
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre
  • Pages: 160

Richard Van Camp grins mischievously at us from the 10 stories that make up his latest collection, Moccasin Square Gardens. By turns playful and intimate, sobering and brash, the stories take us through Van Camp’s vision of Indigenous people in the 21st century, showing how their communities are adapting to and warding off the “after-effects” of colonial life.

The collection bears Van Camp’s signature style – a deft touch in crafting first-person narratives that allow us to float among his characters’ various states of mind and voices.

We share in the intimacies of remote northern life, where falling in love involves elders doubling as extraterrestrial spirit guides who beam to Earth at opportune moments, in Aliens; where community resurgence against colonization is flummoxed by attempts to mount a protest march in a one-stoplight town in Super Indians; and, in Man Babies, where we meet men and women seeking a second chance at love who have to contend with the anxiety, bewilderment and inertia of adult children living at home.

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Who among us has escaped this parental rite of passage of adult children not leaving home, Van Camp seems to ask, as he draws us into the North and its indomitable spirit.

Other stories that form the collection are alternately hilarious and bleak. A key concern of his writing is to explore problems that impede an individual’s future. In Ehtsèe/Grandpa, a young man’s attempts to conceal his weed habit by sharing “American cigarettes” with his unknowing grandparents provide a humorous counterbalance to cousins expressing their rage toward their parents by injuring each other using wrestling moves in The Promise. If we focus too closely on trying to imagine a “camel clutch,” we miss the poignant imagery of two men permanently scarred by absentee parents, on the verge of stepping into an unknown future. Darkly pathetic in ways that Ehtsèe/Grandpa is not in its portrayal of the passing of a grandfather into the spirit world, The Promise is unsettling in its ambiguity about what the future may hold for individuals permanently damaged by suffering and community indifference.

In contrasting ways, Indigenous futures are also the subject of two linked stories that portray a futuristic holy war in which the unwitting protagonist has been recruited by his love interest to fight for the protection of Indigenous children. Graphic in their menacing and gruesome atmospheric qualities, Wheetago War 1: Lying in Bed Together and Wheetago War 2: Summoners demonstrate the strong impact of speculative fiction on Van Camp’s style – and on Indigenous writing in Canada more generally. As a genre that includes elements that do not exist in the real world, speculative fiction has been effective in the hands of Indigenous writers such as Cherie Dimaline and Daniel Heath Justice for imagining alternative worlds of loss, renewal and hope in the portrayal of Indigenous communities confronting decolonization.

The horrific properties of Van Camp’s stories invite us to counter the protagonist’s question, “Why do the Wheetago [cannibalistic monsters] want our children?” with the equally instructive question as to why this genre has become such an evocative form for authors who strive to imagine Indigenous worlds differently.

Imaginative power is central to Van Camp’s short-story collection. It represents the catalyst inspiring new acts of courage that lead a dying man to resist organized crime in I am Filled with a Trembling Light. It provides the impetus for a benediction to all those who have lost their way and passed too soon into the spirit world in the beautifully written closing poem, I Have to Trust. It is the source of the narrator’s wry humour in Knock Knock.

In being taken up by the speculative, spiritual and secular themes explored by this collection, and by floating among Van Camp’s created worlds, readers will alight on stories that transcend and elude the everyday, finding a rich and varied storytelling tradition that is both illuminating and thought-provoking.

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