CM . . . .
Volume VI Number 18 . . . . May 12, 2000
Pauline bows her head; there is no applause, not even a whimper of protest from the audience. She is sure she has offended them all and has already turned to flee from the stage when suddenly they are on their feet, clapping wildly and shouting "Bravo!" and "Encore!" Astonished, she turns back to them, bows again, then walks quickly from the stage. The applause goes on and on. She can't believe it! They liked her poem! In the wings, a smiling Yeigh is waiting for her, grateful that she has saved his literary evening and his reputation. He leads her back to centre stage, and when the applause at last dies down, he promises his audience that Pauline will recite again after the intermission. "You're the star of my show!" he tells her as he escorts her backstage again. This is all overwhelming for Pauline because, although she is thirty-two years old, this is the first time she has ever recited one of her poems in public.In the fall of 1999, XYZ Publishing launched a new series, "Quest Library," featuring 10,000-word narrative biographies of Canadians aimed primarily at social studies and Canadian history students. Among the early offerings, Betty Keller, author of an extensively researched 1981 biography of Pauline Johnson, presents the talented writer and performer as the "first aboriginal voice of Canada." Keller focuses on the years between Johnson's debut as a recital artist in 1892 and her death in 1913.
The daughter of an English mother and a Mohawk chief, Johnson lived in an era when "no decent parents would ever give permission for their sons or daughters to go on the stage." However, Johnson managed to persuade her widowed mother to let her join a recital tour reading her poetry to selected audiences. Johnson's manager, Frank Yeigh, capitalized on her native heritage billing her as the "Mohawk Princess" and dressing her in "Indian togs" for part of each performance and in fashionable ball gowns for the remainder. Johnson, herself, much preferred the Mohawk name acquired from her great-grandfather, Tekahionwake.
Audiences attended "to listen to legends of heroic Mohawks courageously facing death passionately delivered." Realizing he couldn't always find other performers to share her programs, Yeigh teamed Johnson with Owen Smiley, a ventriloquist / impersonator / pianist / comedian, with whom she toured Canada and the United States. Their recitals were interrupted only when Johnson traveled to London in 1894 to find a publisher for her poetry. Returning to Canada, she resumed their partnership, but they parted ways in 1897. Johnson teamed up with J. Walter McRaye after several disastrous experiences with agents. They toured North America, journeyed to London, and worked together successfully until his marriage to an English actress. Her own hopes for marriage dissolved when Charles Drayton requested an end to their engagement because his family disapproved.
Johnson ended her recital tours in 1909 settling in Vancouver for her "official retirement" and renting an apartment. She began "writing in earnest. For the first time since she began touring in 1892 she [could] sit at her own desk in her own room to write." As well as writing poetry, Johnson had commitments for articles to magazines. Although Johnson conquered numerous illnesses over the years, breast cancer finally curtailed her activities. She made "up her mind to face death unflinchingly" and insisted on secrecy to preserve her "privacy and dignity." Cancer crushed her indomitable spirit in 1913; her ashes along with copies of Flint and Feather and Legends of Vancouver were interned at Ferguson Point in Stanley Park, March 13.
Keller captures special moments of Johnson's remarkable life and focuses on the person as much as the artist/performer, including personal details to appeal to adolescent readers. Keller's electing to write the biography in present tense sometimes creates awkwardness in the flow of the prose. Nevertheless, Johnson's pride in her native heritage shines through her writing and performances, as does the strength of her personality. Keller explains that, although Johnson's nature was "fun-loving and gregarious," she had "always kept people at a slight distance;" she was "cordial and friendly but discouraged any signs of approaching intimacy." Yet she numbered British aristocrats, as well as leaders like Chief Joe Capilano and Governor-Generals, among her circle of friends.
The biography includes black and white photographs introducing each chapter. Lynn Bowen adds a chronology showing "Johnson and Her Times" in the context of "Canada and the World," 1712-1918. A list of sources and (thank you, XYZ) an index are provided although Tekahionwake, for example, does not rate a listing in the index. Selected passages from Johnson's prose and poetry incorporated into the text allow adult and adolescent readers to experience a sampling of her talent.
Darleen Golke is the teacher-librarian at Fort Richmond Collegiate in Winnipeg, MB.
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