Thursday, December 03, 2015

E. K. Johnston's PRAIRIE FIRE

E. K. Johnson's Prairie Fire is the sequel to The Story of Owen. Both are works of fantasy for young adults that are also described as alternative histories. Here's the synopsis for The Story of Owen:
"Listen! For I sing of Owen Thorskard: valiant of heart, hopeless at algebra, last in a long line of legendary dragon slayers. Though he had few years and was not built for football, he stood between the town of Trondheim and creatures that threatened its survival. There have always been dragons. As far back as history is told, men and women have fought them, loyally defending their villages. Dragon slaying was a proud tradition. But dragons and humans have one thing in common: an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. From the moment Henry Ford hired his first dragon slayer, no small town was safe. Dragon slayers flocked to cities, leaving more remote areas unprotected. Such was Trondheim's fate until Owen Thorskard arrived. At sixteen, with dragons advancing and his grades plummeting, Owen faced impossible odds—armed only with a sword, his legacy, and the classmate who agreed to be his bard. 

Listen! I am Siobhan McQuaid. I alone know the story of Owen, the story that changes everything. Listen!"

Henry Ford hiring dragon slayers! Cool? I don't know because I didn't read The Story of Owen. I did, however, read the sequel, Prairie Fire. Here's the synopsis for it:
Every dragon slayer owes the Oil Watch a period of service, and young Owen was no exception. What made him different was that he did not enlist alone. His two closest friends stood with him shoulder to shoulder. Steeled by success and hope, the three were confident in their plan. But the arc of history is long and hardened by dragon fire. Try as they might, Owen and his friends could not twist it to their will. Not all the way. Not all together. The sequel to the critically acclaimed The Story of Owen.
Prairie Fire is primarily about Owen and Siobhan (who tells the story). Their assignment as dragon slayers is to guard Fort Calgary. As I started to read, I saw a lot of place names specific to First Nations but... no people who are First Nations (that comes later).

Early in the book, there's a reference to Manitoulin, a place that (I think) was destroyed in The Story of Owen. I read "Manitoulin" and right away wondered if that is a Native place. The answer? Yes. According to the Wikwemikong website, Manitoulin is home to one of the ten largest First Nations communities in Canada. I understand--of course--that in stories like Prairie Fire, writers can write what they wish--including wiping out existing places--but when the writer is not Native, and one of the places being wiped out is Native, it too closely parallels recent and ongoing displacements and violence done to Indigenous peoples. As such, I object.

We learn a bit more about Manitoulin when we get to the chapter, The Story of Manitoulin(ish) (p. 55):
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful island where three Great Lakes met. Named for a god, it could well have been the home of one: rolling green hills and big enough that it was dotted by small blue lakes of its own. It was the biggest freshwater island in the world, and Canada was proud to call it ours.
Named for a god? I don't think so. From what I'm learning, it means something like 'home of the ancestors.' I also wondered, as I read that line, who named it Manitoulin? Canadians? Canadians who are "proud to call it ours"? Another big pause for me. I doubt that First Nations people reading Prairie Fire would be ok with that line.

In Prairie Fire, we learn that the island, situated between the US and Canada, is inhabitable due to American capitalism (p. 55):  
Two whole generations of Canadians grew up, never having set foot on that pristine sand, never staying in those quaint hotels, and never learning to swim in those sheltered bays, but always there was hope that we would someday return.
Hmmm. That sounds to me like White people who are lamenting loss of pristine sand and quaint hotels. Again, no Native people. Kind of shouts privilege, to me. Another place named is Chilliwack, home to the Sto Lo people, but no Sto Lo people are in Prairie Fire. 

The chapter, Totem Poles, is unsettling, too. These poles are at Fort Calgary. Siobhan and Owen get there, via train. As they traveled, Siobhan worried that they'd be attacked by dragons (p. 69):
There are any number of American movies about dragon slayers fighting dragons from the tops of trains, but I was quite happy not to be reenacting one. We made it all the way to Manitoba before we even saw a dragon out the window, and it was far enough away that we didn’t have to worry about it.
That reminded me of westerns in which Indians are attacking the trains, and while I don't think Johnston intended us to equate dragons with Indians, I kind of can't help but make that connection when I read that passage. Anyway, as the train nears Fort Calgary, they see a row of metal teeth that stretch up into the air (p. 71):
The metal teeth were the tops of stylized totem poles, taller than the California Redwoods on which they were modeled, and thrusting jagged steel into the bright prairie sunset. Though most of the poles were around the wall of the fort, they were also scattered throughout the city itself, to prevent the dragons from dive-bombing any of the buildings. 
One of the dragon slayers thinks they are beautiful, but another says (p. 71):
“They’re probably covered with bird crap up close,” Parker pointed out.
Totem poles hold deep significance to the tribes who create them. I haven't studied Parker as a character, and it may be that he's an unpleasant sort who we readers are expected to dislike, but still... Was that "bird crap" line necessary? And why are totem poles cast as tools of defense in the first place? It reminds me of the United States Armed Services use of names of Native Nations and imagery for weapons of war (examples include the Apache attack helicopter and the tomahawk cruise missile). They--like mascot names--are supposedly conveying some sort of honor, but with victory over a foe the goal, are these honorable things to do?

The book goes on and on like that...

In Disposable Civilians, we read about a dragon called the Athabascan Longtail. Athabascan's are Native, too. And then there's the chapter called The Story of the Dragon Chinook. For those who don't know, Chinook is also the name of a First Nation. In Prairie Fire, the Chinook dragons are especially vicious. Their attacks are preceded by smoke. There's more railroad trains in this part of the story. To get railroad tracks laid, the government brings Chinese workers to Canada, "paying them just enough that they might forget about the dragons in the sky" (p. 124). And yes, those Chinese workers are amongst those disposable civilians.

In the Haida Welcome chapter (Owen and Siobhan are visiting Port Edward, on the coast), we get to know a character named Peter and his family. They are Haida. They play drums made of dragon's hearts. There's a stage where they dance. The stage has a row of waist high totem poles (p. 221):
These were wooden poles, traditional and fierce looking, each with painted white teeth inside a grinning mouth and an odd crest upon each head.
Owen, Siobhan, and the others gathered there watch the dancers on stage move in ways that suggest they're in a canoe. Siobhan remembers that the Haida are a sea-going nation. The person in front is their dragon slayer. She throws a rope with a large ring on its end to a dragon. On the fourth throw she catches it, the song and dance change, and the dragon is brought to the totem poles where it lies down, defeated. Owen wonders aloud if the dragon had drowned, and Peter laughs, telling him (p. 222):
“No,” Peter said. “The orcas took care of it.” “The whales?” Owen said. “They’re not called Slayer Whales for nothing,” Peter reminded him.
That part of the story makes me uneasy. What Johnston has done is create what she presents as a Native ceremony or dance. It reminds me of what Rosanne Parry did in Written In Stone. 

After that dance part, I quit reading Prairie Fire. Though I can see why it appeals to fans of stories like this, the erasure of Native peoples, the weaponizing of Native artifacts, and the creation of Native story are serious problems. I cannot recommend Prairie Fire.

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