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A Short History of Indians in Canada

By Thomas King

HarperCollins Canada,

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232 pages, $24.95

In one story, flying North American Indians -- think giant eagles -- keep crashing into skyscrapers in downtown Toronto. In another, a wealthy man maintains a collection of living, breathing Indians on his rolling estate as if they were china dolls or toy soldiers. In a third, rifle-toting hunters set up "blinds" outside a retirement home to see if, during the annual six-week open season, they can bag their quota of people over the age of 55.

Welcome to Thomas King country. The territory is familiar to anyone in Canada who reads fiction -- familiar and yet happily unpredictable. Reading this latest collection of stories is like bouncing along a dirt road in an old pick-up truck. You think you recognize the occasional farmhouse or weathered billboard, but you're hanging on for dear life, and you never know whether, just over the next rise or around the next bend, you'll hit a cow or a movie extra or suddenly merge onto Highway 401, where a traffic jam has lasted so long that would-be travellers have turned their stalled 12 lanes of repressed road rage into a temporary city, complete with Star Trek videos on a big screen and loudspeakers blaring James Taylor.

Yes, A Short History of Indians in Canada did put me in mind of Julio Cortazar, the late, great South American author whose fiction included such masterful short-story collections as All Fires the Fire, Cronopios and Famas and End of the Game and Other Stories. Like Cortazar, King revels in a playful but provocative magic realism, though obviously he has long since developed a distinctive voice and vision.

For those just back from Mars, let's quickly recapitulate. Born in 1943 to a Cherokee father and a Greek-German mother, Thomas King grew up in northern California. He took his PhD at the University of Utah and, though a closet fiction writer, became an academic, moving in 1980 to the University of Lethbridge. A decade later, he published Medicine River, a memorable first novel that became a movie. Since then, having transferred to the University of Waterloo, King has published several works of fiction, including the notable novel Green Grass, Running Water. He also hosted the popular CBC Radio series The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour, and gave the 2003 Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories.

Many of the stories in A Short History have appeared in magazines -- Toronto Life, Canadian Literature, Story, The Malahat Review, West Magazine, New Quarterly, Whetstone, The Walrus, Descant, Border Crossings, Prairie Fire -- or else have been broadcast on CBC Radio, or both. This testifies to their readability and broad appeal, both of which owe something to King's deadpan humour, and more to his skill as a craftsman.

In a story called The Baby in the Airmail Box, in which a white baby arrives in a cardboard box addressed to the Rocky Creek First Nations, King writes: "Linda Blackenship walks into Bob Wakutz's office at the Alberta Child Placement Agency with a large folder and an annoyed expression on her face that reminds Bob of the various promises he has made Linda about leaving his wife."

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At a stroke, King has introduced two characters and encapsulated their relationship, while wittily entertaining and also establishing a pained, rueful tone. In this pithy sentence we discover humour, certainly; but also, and more profoundly, we discern a remarkable economy of means. Here we see a master craftsman at work.

Or consider this snippet of bathtub dialogue, from The Dog I Wish I Had, I Would Call It Helen, between four-year-old Jonathan and his mother:

"Let's wash your hair now."

"Am I four now?"

"Yes, honey. Yesterday was your birthday."

"But I didn't get my dog."

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"Should I use the bunny soap or the squirrel soap?"

"If I had a dog, it would scare the ghosts away."

"The bunny soap smells like strawberries. Here, smell."

What makes this work, and sound believable, is that the two characters talk at cross-purposes, each of them relentlessly pursuing an agenda. It's funny, all right, but mainly it's subtle craftsmanship.

In A Short History, we see King at work and at play in various narrative traditions: fable, tall tale, realistic story, magic-realist story. He ranges across these modes as well, mixing and matching the farcical, the irreverent and the political. The three stories I mentioned at the top of this review -- Tidings of Comfort and Joy, The Closer You Get to Canada, the More Things Will Eat Your Horses and the title story -- all lean to farce.

Entertaining irreverence dominates Bad Men Who Love Jesus, while the overtly political Coyote and the Enemy Aliens gives the broad-stroke "white man" a taste of his own stereotyping medicine. It tastes a bit like castor oil, thank you very much, but choking it down will make you a better person, and King has the grace -- and the craft -- to sweeten this difficult elixir with humour.

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A Short History could not, by its multifarious, eclectic nature, rival King's rambunctious but cohesive novels as a reading experience. Yet here we get to hear the man's voice, and we see him at work -- and that, while we wait for the next big kaboom, will do nicely.

Toronto author Ken McGoogan, who for years rode a school bus with Mohawks from Oka, will publish Lady Franklin's Revenge later this month.

When the animals come to town

Later that evening, Alistair and Evelyn sat in the living room and listened to the wolves and the foxes and the moose and the hawks and crows and magpies and watched as a herd of elk, silhouetted against the setting sun, wandered past their picture window.

"It's a little noisy," said Evelyn, "but having wild animals in the city is rather exciting, don't you think?"

Alistair watched as the elk moved from one lawn to another, churning up the grass with their hooves and plowing through the flower beds. He had to admit that there was a kind of National Geographic feel to the moment, but he knew that it would pass, and, in the end, he was sure that this new arrangement would never work. Living with the occasional skunk or raccoon was one thing. Living with a herd of elk in your yard, majestic though they might be, was quite another.

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The next morning, while he was watching an old rerun of The Rockford Files, Alistair realized that he couldn't hear the raccoons in the attic anymore. He turned down the volume and listend for a while. Then he went into the garden.

"Honey," he said to Evelyn. "I think the raccoons are gone."

"That's not all," said Evelyn. "Lucille says her wood ducks have disappeared."

"The coyotes probably ate them," said Alistair.

-- from Rendezvous, in A Short

History of Indians in Canada

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