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January 31, 2016

Bearskin Diary, by Carol Daniels

Bearskin_Diary-COVER-ALT.inddCarol Daniels’ first novel, Bearskin Diary, is driven by a remarkable protagonist, powered by compelling narrative voice and an extraordinary point of view. Sandy Pelly was part of the “Sixties Scoop”, a First Nations child taken from her parents and set adrift in the fostering and adoption system. Her story, unlike so many others, turned out mostly well—she was adopted by white parents who were loving and supportive, who did their best to fight against the racism omnipresent in the society in which they lived, and she was well loved by her grandmother, her Ukrainian “Baba“, who instilled in Sandy a sense of her own self-worth and an instinct for story-telling. But the loss of her heritage and culture is deeply traumatic, a loss whose effects Sandy can’t even articulate properly—she doesn’t know what she’s missing. But she knows she’s missing something, not least of all a place where she belongs. There is a disturbing remembrance of Sandy at five-years-old trying to scrub away the brown from her skin.

Things are going well for Sandy. Against the odds, she’s making it as a TV reporter, a rare position for a First Nations woman in the 1980s (and not so common these days either)—and we’re shown the racism she has to contend with from co-workers. She and her best friend Ellen enjoy regular Girls Nights, and it’s at one of these that she meets Blue for the first time. A Metis police trainee, she is instantly attracted to him, for obvious reasons, but also because she sees a glimpse in him of what she’s missing in herself. Blue is similarly alienated from his culture, however, and their relationship proves complicated—she throws caution to the wind and decides to follow him to Saskatoon, where he lives and works, but after a period of domestic bliss, she realizes he’s still distracted by a previous relationship that might not be as far back in the past as she’d been lead to believe. While this revelation is devastating, however, Sandy has other preoccupations—she’s managed to find a great job in her new city, and has just received a troubling tip about Saskatoon police officers taking First Nations women into isolated areas and raping them, getting away with it over and over again. And as she’s grappling with just how to tell that particular story, Sandy is also connecting with local First Nations Elders and discovering the richness of a culture that’s been denied to her for her entire life.

I read the book in a couple of days, and found it fast-paced and really absorbing. Although I was compelled by the story itself and its main character, more so than the novel’s structure, the container that held it. While Sandy was a rich and textured character, secondary characters were more one-dimensional. There were also strange shifts in point-of-view throughout the text. But it also occurs to me that critiquing the book by English literature standards is also beside the point—Bearskin Diary is part of a different tradition and has a more mythological structure, with expansiveness instead of depth, with depth in the places that I didn’t look for it at first. It’s chronology too is remarkable, the present moment dissolving into the past—each one containing all those that came before. It’s a novel with the feel of the oral tradition—and indeed it’s the voice that draws the reader in.

Which makes reading Bearskin Diary really a pleasure. In a time in which it’s never been more important that First Nations’ women voices are heard (and read), Daniels’ novel is definitely one not to miss.

2 thoughts on “Bearskin Diary, by Carol Daniels”

  1. Dessa says:

    Sounds excellent. Thanks for the review – just added it to the to-read pile!

  2. Okay, I need to read this. My parents adopted a First Nations child (my brother) and I’m from Saskatoon. I suspect I will have a strong reaction to this book.

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