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Pickle Me This

May 22, 2017

Glass Beads, by Dawn Dumont

“Why is Friends on every channel?” is a question posed at the beginning of one of the inter-connected short stories in Dawn Dumont’s new book, Glass Beads, and the answer to that question is the same as the answer to another one: What makes Glass Beads so compulsively readable? A cast of compelling characters each so different and singular that their interactions create interesting conflict, plus sparkly witty dialogue. In the same way that Friends is a show you can have playing in the background, I read Glass Beads in two days. And yet—to say the book is similarly easy (the kind of thing you can have playing in the background) is to undermine its substance, the darkness at its margins and core. But still: the darkness is not the whole point.

Last week on twitter, Tracey Lindberg asked a kind of rhetorical question about the possibility of Indigenous beach reads. A rhetorical question because her point is that Indigenous literature is pushed to be issues-based and doesn’t get to be fun, light and joyful in the way that other literatures do. And the closest answer I have to the idea of an Indigenous beach read is Dawn Dumont’s work, including Glass Beads, which follows Rose’s Run (a book I loved) and Nobody Cries at Bingo. Her work is as smart and funny as you’d expect from a writer whose background includes law and standup comedy, never shying away from big issues and politics (in Rose’s Run, a demon draws on the strength of women to seek justice for innumerable wrongs committed against them by men; in the context of missing and murdered Indigenous women, this is no small statement) but written with a decidedly commercial bent.

Billed as a collection of connected short stories, Glass Beads actually works astoundingly well as a novel, told from four perspectives between  1993 and 2008. Friends Nellie and Julie whose ties go back to childhood on their reserve, although they’re very different. Nellie is stubborn, smart and determined to become a lawyer, whereas Julie is unsettled, rattled by early loss and childhood traumas and given a lot of latitude because of her beauty. Nellie is in love with Everett, who is gorgeous but a bit dumb, and unwilling to give her the commitment she longs for. Abandoned by his parents, Everett carries his own baggage. Rounding out their foursome is Taz, who knows Nellie through the Native Students Council at their university and Everett because Taz buys drugs from his roommate. Taz and Julie become an unlikely couple, on-again and off-again as Everett and Nellie are.

The ties between the four of them deeply wound, binding, ever changing, time and experience bringing them together and apart. Nellie achieves her career goals, but find that there is still much to yearn for. Julie drifts, loses her way, and comes home again, at one point become incarcerated for her part in a fight, and is forced to partake in a substance abuse program even through she doesn’t have a substance abuse problem—but the carpentry program was full and that’s what happens when you’re a human being instead of a statistic. Taz moves from work with the provincial government to become Grand Chief of the Provincial Council of First Nations, with Nellie supporting him professionally. And Everett finally begins to the connect with the culture that was stolen from him when he lost his father, his ties to Nellie cemented when she gets pregnant with their child.

That we can read a book from four different perspectives and still not know everything, and that Dumont can create tension and shocking moments with that space beyond the limits of what we know about these characters is a testament to Glass Beads‘ craftsmanship, and why I consider it a novel more than stories—the book as a whole is deftly plotted. Its characters change and grow, harden yet remain vulnerable, get together and fall apart, and pick up the pieces again, and here we are witnessing all of it. We feel like we know them. Like a certain 1990s’ sitcom, but infinitely more interesting.

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