________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 13. . . .February 20, 2009.


Dog Tracks.

Ruby Slipperjack.
Calgary, AB Fifth House, 2008.
225 pp., pbk., $14.95.
ISBN 978-1-897252-29-1.

Subject Heading:
Ojibwa Indians-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Darleen Golke.





The ceremonies were to begin just after sunrise and we were expected to be gathered around the ceremonial site by that time. We walked along the shore, almost to the end of the island to where the boats converged in one spot. From there, we went up an embankment and we came to the level ceremonial area. I came to understand that this was where important events always took place. I wasn't prepared for what I saw.

There were spruce boughs spread like a big fan outward from the centre of the ceremonial site. The outer perimeter was marked off by rocks set in a circle and there was a central fire smouldering in the middle. I recognized the smell of sage and sweet grass from the Cultural Days at school when they'd brought Gish and some of the other elders in to talk about the teachings and taboos of our culture. The drums started just as we entered the area. I understood the language quite well now, so I was able to follow along without Mom having to explain things to me. From that point, I sat down and watched the ceremonies with nervous attention.

After some time, I suddenly focused on the fact that as the Medicine Man was speaking, he had turned to look in our direction. Then Mom and Dad stood up and I had to force my feet to move to the circle with them. My stomach began to feel weird when the elder was speaking to me. It was my naming ceremony! I forced myself to stand with my shoulders straight and my chin up as per Alice's last instructions.

In his rather authoritative voice, the Medicine Man turned and addressed all the people there and the spirits that be, that from that time on, my name was "White-Throated Sparrow." That is how I was introduced to all those in attendance and to the spirits of our ancestors as well. He explained that the white-throated sparrow is known as the "weather bird" to the Anishinawbe. If its birdsong notes went up, it was going to be a good day. If its notes went down, it would rain. And, it also applied to our human form as well.

I don't remember what else he said because I was floored. I'd always felt kind of smug that I could predict if it was going to rain or snow, and here I was being given a name that meant that exact talent! How on earth could the Medicine Man have known? And what did he mean by "our human form as well?" Was I also supposed to be able to predict the bad and good in humans, as well as the weather? It was all very confusing to me.

     Life as she knows it changes dramatically for almost 13-year-old Abby when her beloved maternal grandfather falls ill. At the conclusion of his hospital stay, the comfortable little white house in Nibika, Abby's home for more than six years, must be sold, her grandparents move to an apartment and Abby journeys to the northwestern Ontario Bear Creek First Nation to live with her mother, stepfather, sister, and half-brother. Over the years, Abby has visited Bear Creek a couple of times a year, always ready to return to her friends and comfortable life in Nibika.

     Accompanied by her grandmother, Abby arrives at her new home, feeling displaced and lost. Unlike her cozy former home, the Bear Creek house is basic, albeit well-lived in, but lacking the familiar comforts and peopled by an annoying six-year-old brother, a stepfather, an absent sister, and a mother she hardly knows.

     Slipperjack walks Abby through the adjustments essential to her successful integration into her new life. Fortunately, Abby speaks Ojibwe although not as comfortably or fluently as her classmates, a shortcoming they readily seize upon and mock. Her off-reserve life ill-prepared her for the life of hunting, trapping and gathering essential to survival on a northern reserve. Abby's stepfather, John, and his friends plan to launch the Real Anishinawbe Experience, a venture taking "tourists out into the wilderness to experience the winter life of the Anishinawbe as it was back in the 1800s." John explains, "We'll take them ice fishing, rabbit snaring, and snow shoeing." A principal advocate of the venture, Chief Paulie hires Aggie as a "stock girl" to organize the stacks of leather and fur mitts, mukluks, and other crafts that have piled up at her house and contracts to help her with the advanced math her teachers have suggested because Abby has already mastered the level of her fellow classmates. Abby finds music helps her adjust to reserve life, and, encouraged by her teacher, she sings at local events accompanied by handsome Abraham and his guitar. The addition of a pup, Ki-Moot (the thief), that will join one of the dog teams for the tourist venture, likewise helps Abby adapt to reserve life.

     Berry picking excursions and hunting trips introduce Abby to the work involved in setting up camps and organizing events. Ceremonies and feasts accompanying the activities teach Abby elements of Anishinawbe culture and spirituality as do the Medicine Man and her stepfather's friend, Gish, and other elders. Gradually, she learns the rhythms and nuances of life at Bear Creek, decides to call her stepfather Dad, bonds with her sister, accepts her mother's gentle instruction in social mores and the art of silent observation and communication, and even tolerates her mischievous little brother whom she dubs S.S., Stink Skunk. After more than a year at Bear Creek, Aggie feels part of the community and contributes her talents to the tourist adventure company they name Dog Tracks. Among other events, she celebrates her birthday and other joyful occasions, she copes with the loss of her beloved grandfather and a baby cousin, she rejoices in the birth of a baby sister, she endures the tensions caused by a visit from a grizzly bear and a forest fire. As Abby struggles with change, she learns about her culture and history and carves a niche for herself in her family and her community.

     Abby's story reflects day to day life for people living in communities like Bear Creek First Nation in northern Ontario. Slipperjack, a faculty member in the Department of Indigenous Learning at Lakehead University, author, artist and illustrator, has been called "one of the strongest Native voices in Canadian Literature" by Thomas King, author of Green Grass, Running Water. In this third novel for young adult readers following Honor the Sun (1987) and Silent Words (1992), Slipperjack carefully paints a portrait of traditional and non-traditional life incorporating history and culture into a coming of age story. Her own background, raised in Whitewater Lake in northwestern Ontario, a member of Eabametoong First Nation, eminently qualifies her to provide first-hand knowledge of northern life. Packed with detail and information, Dog Tracks is not a quick read, and the frequent use of passive voice tends to slow the prose. Nevertheless, the novel, aimed at readers of Abby's age group, serves as a primer on Aboriginal life for readers of all ages and would be a useful addition to public and school libraries especially in support of the Social Studies' curriculum focus on First Nations.


Darleen Golke writes from her home in Abbotsford, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.