Monday, April 11, 2016

Beverly Slapin's review of FIRE IN THE VILLAGE, by Anne M. Dunn

Editor's Note: Beverly Slapin submitted this review essay of Anne M. Dunn's Fire in the Village. It may not be used elsewhere without her written permission. All rights reserved. Copyright 2016. Slapin is currently the publisher/editor of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children.

Dunn, Anne M. (Anishinabe-Ojibwe), Fire in the Village: New and Selected Stories. Holy Cow! Press, 2016.

Everyone knows a circle has no beginning and no end. In Fire in the Village, Anishinabe elder and wisdom-sharer Anne M. Dunn shows us a world in which everything in Creation has life, in which everything has volition, in which everything needs to be thanked and respected. It’s a world inhabited by mischievous Little People and wise elders; by four-leggeds, two-leggeds, flying nations, swimmers and those who creep; by hovering spirits and the children who can see them, and by haunting flashbacks that just won’t go away. Like points in a circle, each story has a place that informs the whole.

Here are 75 stories of how things came to be and how the humans (some of them, anyway) came to understand their responsibilities to all Creation. Stories of how the Little People can make huge things happen and how elders and children may be the only ones who understand and respect them. Stories about why butterflies are beautiful but can’t sing, why Tamarack drops its needles in winter, and why, every season, Anishinabeg give great thanks to the sap-giving maple trees. And gut-wrenching stories of the horrors inflicted on innocent little children in the Indian residential schools and stories of internalized racism and stories of good, loving parents who have alcoholism.

One of my favorite of Anne’s not-so-subtle stories (that reminds me of the US and Canadian governments’ failed attempts at cultural erasure of Indian peoples) involves an elder woman’s dreams to create a monument to fry bread, and the Department of Fry Bread Affairs—“suspicious that the women were engaged in resistance and eager to crush any possibility of dissent”—finds a way to destroy their Great Fry Bread Mountain and outlaw the women’s Fry Bread dances. But, if you know any history, you know that the struggle continues.

Without didacticism, without polemic, Anne gives each story the attention it needs so it can speak its own truth. How a little boy finds the perfect gift for his grandma. How a bear reciprocates for an elder woman’s generosity. How the Little People encourage an old man on his final journey. How a drum dreamed by a woman long ago can bring healing to the community.

Ojibwe artist Annie Humphrey’s beautifully detailed black-and-white pen-and-ink interior illustrations, together with the cover’s bright eye-catching colors in Prismacolor colored pencil, complement Anne’s tellings and will draw readers into the stories.

Children can enjoy acting out many of Anne’s stories about how things came to be, and some of the others as well. But, please—pitch the fake “Indians” with costumes, headdresses, wigs and face paint; also, the “woo-woos,” “hows,” “ughs,” and “hop-hop” dances. The most effective “costumes” I’ve seen were plain t-shirts and jeans for the two-legged characters, and minimal decorations to denote the four-leggeds, flying ones, swimming nations and those who creep.

In her Foreword, Anne writes:

The storyteller is usually a recognized member of the community, one who carries the stories that must be told. Perhaps young tellers will arrive to carry them forward. So our stories will continue to be passed from generation to generation.

 “Some stories are told more often, she also writes, “because those are the stories that want to be told. They are the ones that teach the vital lessons of our culture and traditions.” Depending on what lessons are being imparted, some stories may be for everyone, some for children, some for initiates, and some for adults. I would encourage parents, classroom teachers and librarians to use the same caution with this written collection.

As in the old times, when the people were taught by example and by stories, Anne sits in a circle with her audience and relates teachings and events from the long ago, from the distant past, from almost yesterday, and from now and beyond tomorrow—because every day, you know, brings a new story. If you listen for it. As Anne ends some of her stories, “That’s the way it was. That’s the way it is.”

‘Chi miigwech, Anne. I’m honored to call you friend.

1 comment:

Barbara La Valleur said...

I'm looking forward to ordering and reading it! Will have it autographed the next time we see each other.