CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 12 . . . . February 2, 2007
When the Spirits Dance.
Larry Loyie & Constance Brissenden.
Penticton, BC: Theytus Books, 2006.
44 pp., cloth, $19.95.
Loyie, Larry, 1933- -Childhood and youth-Juvenile literature.
Cree Indians-Alberta-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Authors, Canadian (English)-20th century-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Grades 3-7 / Ages 8-12.
Review by Dave Jenkinson.
Lawrence went outside to the basin of water by the door. As he washed, he listened to the honking geese flying south for the winter.
Last night his mother had promised him, “We are having Sunny Boy for breakfast.” Even the name of the new cereal sounded tasty. Maybe it was like cake or candy, Lawrence thought hopefully.
Lawrence and his sisters never drank fresh milk anymore. Mama mixed Klim, a white powder, with water to make milk for them to drink.
Food was in short supply because of the war. Mama had a ration book from the government. Inside the book were stamps for milk, sugar, meat, butter, coffee, tea and other things from the store. Mama was careful about her quota of stamps. If she used them up, she couldn’t get any more. If she had unused stamps, she traded them for items the family needed.
Sunny Boy cereal was something new. Lawrence hurried inside to try it.
He sat at the kitchen table and looked at the Sunny Boy in his bowl. It was dark brown. He poured milk over it. The milk made from the powder look blue. He sprinkled a tiny bit of sugar on top.
He tried a spoonful of Sunny Boy. It was gooey and tasted like medicine.
“How do you like it?” Mama asked brightly.
“I like porridge better,” Lawrence said. He tried not to make a face.”
A prequel to As Long as the Rivers Flow, winner of the Norma Fleck Award for nonfiction, When the Spirits Dance also deals with another transformative year in the life of Lawrence Loyie, a young Cree boy. In 1941, Lawrence, then just eight, lives with his parents and three sisters in Rabbit Hill, a small community in northern Alberta located just a half-hour’s walk away from the town of Slave Lake. In the fall, Lawrence’s father, Victor, a World War I veteran and father of nine, is called up to serve overseas, and Lawrence finds that many things change over the ensuing year as he has to assume some new responsibilities. Because Lawrence’s story is told in a chronological and episodic fashion, readers just get glimpses of some of the moments that Lawrence considered memorable over the book’s one-year time span, such as the day when a military deserter tries to steal the family’s supplies or the day a letter from Lawrence’s father finally arrives at the Slave Lake post office. While a three-page “Epilogue” provides hard facts about the period, including the information that many First Nations people who served in the armed forces during World War II later lost their Indian status while, at the same time, being denied benefits offered to other veterans, the main text also has many period details imbedded within it.
The book’s title is derived from the book’s concluding incident which finds Lawrence feeling old enough to camp alone while the family is gathering birch sap to make sweet birch syrup. During the night, Lawrence has a terrifying dream, one which includes a grizzly bear. Later that night, Lawrence’s grandmother tells him that his dream has brought him his animal spirit that will guide him through life. As the pair watch the dancing Northern Lights, his grandmother explains that “Our people believe that the lights are the spirits of our ancestors.”
A one-room school, a battery radio, wooden sidewalks, ration books, horses and wagons for transportation and gravel roads are just a few of the details that will remind readers of the book’s time setting. Some of the contents of When the Spirits Dance also signal the beginning of major changes in the lifestyle of these First Nations peoples. Grandpa walks 30 miles to bring Lawrence’s mother some smoked fish because he recognizes that “With your husband away, I’m sure your family is not getting enough wild meat or fish to eat.” From depending upon the land, rivers and lakes for much of their food, the family, without its hunter and fisher, come to count much more on store-bought foods, a change in diet which would ultimately lead to health problems. With his father away, Lawrence has no one to teach him how to “read” the forests, an education which is essentially terminated when Lawrence must attend a residential school, the story told in As Long as the Rivers Flow.
When the Spirits Dance, which is printed on glossy paper, is liberally illustrated with captioned, period photographs, both black & white and colour.
Dave Jenkinson teaches in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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