CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 18. . . . May 9, 2003
I could feel the heat from Arthur's shoulders next to mine and the damp sweat that was different from my own, and even though we'd been friends forever, I could still smell he was an Indian. I never thought much about this being a bad thing. Sometimes smells even bring back memories. The problem is memories could be either good or bad. And being reminded that we were different usually brought back the bad memories, like the town people going out of their way to make an Indian's life miserable, for no other reason than because he talked different or looked different or smelled different or a hundred other reasons that made even less sense.
Will Samson, the narrator, and Arthur, his Aboriginal friend, live in Grayson, Alberta. The story takes place in 1952, and the author describes many racist attitudes and behaviours endured by the Indigenous people in this town. It is fundamental to consider the historical context when interpreting the events and attitudes portrayed in the book. While out late one night watching a meteor shower, Will and Arthur witness the beating of an Aboriginal adolescent named Catfish by Mr. Howe and some of his men. Mr. Howe is the wealthiest individual in Grayson, and, according to Will and Arthur, he is feared by most of the people in the small prairie town. Mr. Howe is a racist and self-centered individual who shows no empathy or compassion for other human beings. When Will's family lost their land to the bank, Mr. Howe bought if for next to nothing. Subsequently, Will's Aunt Molly drowned in the irrigation pond, but Will has figured out the truth about Molly's death.
Before being captured and beaten by Mr. Howe and his men, Catfish buries some papers under a rock. Will and Arthur recover the papers and discover that they have a Deed of Land, a deed belonging to Wilfred Black, a man unknown to either boy. While working to solve the mystery of the deed, Will and Arthur find out that one of Mr. Howe's daughters, Emma, who is mentally unstable, is living in a nearby shack. Emma's father has hired an aggressive Aboriginal woman to ensure that Emma does not leave her premises. The townspeople, including Jane, Mr. Howe's younger daughter, believe that Emma was sent to Ponoka, an institution for the mentally ill, many years ago. Why the secrecy around Emma's location? The boys discover that Emma was once married to Wilfred Black, an Aboriginal man. And who is Caffish? Well, you will have to read the book to discover his identity, and to learn about how Will and Arthur work together to unravel the mystery of Wilfred Black.
A map at the beginning of the novel assists readers to visualize the boys' travels around Grayson. The title of the book has multiple meanings - there is a deed of land, and it is indeed "dirty" because of Mr. Howe's actions, but there are several other dirty deeds in the novel as well. The pace of the book is a bit slow at the beginning, but once the boys begin unraveling the mystery, the book easily maintains reader interest. Arthur and Will are likeable characters, and they have an easy-going and mutually respectful friendship. However, the plot is action-driven, and there are some stereotyped characters in the book.
Many of Will's activities are unknown to his parents, and at one point in the book, Will has not been home for nearly two days. It seems unbelievable that Will would not tell his parents about the unfolding events or at least go home and tell "falsehoods" about his activities. Although Will's father has been searching for him and the boys are in contact with Arthur's grandfather and mother, I question the credibility of Will's two-day absence from home. When Will finally returns home, he tells his mother the truth about his absence, but then his mother lies to Will's father. Why? There is no reason to keep the truth from Mr. Samson.
In the notes about the author at the end of the book, readers learn that Stenhouse was raised in a small Manitoba town and that he and an Aboriginal boy were good friends in school. A Dirty Deed is Stenhouse's second novel. His first novel, Across the Steel River, is also about Will and Arthur.
Sylvia Pantaleo is an Assistant Professor of Language Arts at the Faculty of Education, the University of Victoria in Victoria, BC.
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other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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.