In­dige­nous mythol­ogy, his­tory tale feels flat

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Kathryne Card­well

THIS de­but novel is like a fam­ily­bond­ing va­ca­tions you took as a kid: you’re glad you went through it, you en­joyed it in the end, but mostly you’re just happy it’s over. From one an­gle, Grey Eyes is a beau­ti­fully rich story about in­dige­nous life prior to Euro­pean con­tact. On the other hand, the story suf­fers se­verely from a mo­not­o­nous writ­ing style, too many sec­ondary char­ac­ters and a dragged-out plot­line that drains most of the read­ing plea­sure. The novel com­bines his­tor­i­cal de­pic­tions Cree Na­tion life with mytho­log­i­cal and fan­tas­ti­cal el­e­ments to vividly cre­ate a world most mod­ern North Americans couldn’t imag­ine. Busch’s story is wor­thy of com­par­i­son to con­tem­po­raries Thomas King and Joseph Boy­den. But un­like them, Busch’s prose is limp, his di­a­logue unin­spired; Grey Eyes reads more like a text­book than a novel. The story is set in an un­spec­i­fied year, pre­sum­ably be­fore the Bri­tish or French ar­rived, as Euro­pean char­ac­ters do not ap­pear and are never re­ferred to in the story. The coun­try is re­ferred to only as Tur­tle Is­land, a term used by sev­eral in­dige­nous na­tions for North Amer­ica. Re­mov­ing the Euro­pean con­text im­merses the reader in Busch’s world. The univer­sal mo­tifs such as com­mu­nity strength, spir­i­tu­al­ity, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and sacrifice, ac­quire new mean­ings in the unique set­ting. The novel opens in the vil­lage of Nisich­awayasihk, of the Ne­hiyawak Cree Na­tion. Times are hard for the seven clans of the com­mu­nity. Once rich in mag­i­cal, spir­i­tual bless­ings brought about by the Grey-Eyes — peo­ple born with light eyes that sig­nify pow­er­ful mag­i­cal tal­ents — only one el­derly Grey-Eyed woman re­mains. Things are hard­est for the Bear clan, at one time a pros­per­ous fam­ily re­spected for their heal­ing abil­i­ties. But since they have not pro­duced a Grey-Eyed child in three gen­er­a­tions, many have be­gun to whis­per that the Bears’ mag­i­cal tal­ents have left them. This changes when the daugh­ter of the Bear clan ma­tri­arch gives birth to a Grey-Eyed boy. “Once again, the Bear clan would have the Grey-Eye magic. Once again, the Ne­hiyawak would have to give the Bears the re­spect they de­served,” Busch writes. The child is a bless­ing, as he will bring pros­per­ity to the fam­ily and pro­tec­tion to the vil­lagers from the sin­is­ter Red-Eyes — a tribe of vi­cious war­riors who seek to de­stroy the peace­ful life­style of the Ne­hiyawak. The child at­tracts at­ten­tion from men­ac­ing strangers and op­por­tunis­tic friends who may have darker mo­tives. Com­mu­nity ten­sions flare, for­mer lead­ers are cast aside and new al­liances emerge that threaten to tear apart the vil­lage. If the vil­lage is to de­feat the Red-Eyes and pre­serve their way of life, they must stand to­gether. Busch, him­self a mem­ber of the Nisich­awayasihk Cree Na­tion in north­ern Man­i­toba, should be loudly praised for por­tray­ing in­dige­nous so­ci­ety on its own with­out con­trast­ing it with Euro­pean cul­ture. Read­ers will be en­chanted with Busch’s de­pic­tions of a ma­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety and his de­scrip­tions of sweat lodge cer­e­monies, heal­ing rit­u­als and con­flict-res­o­lu­tion meet­ings — mod­ern-day Cana­di­ans have much to learn from the Ne­hiyawak. But Busch’s dull writ­ing ul­ti­mately drains the ex­cite­ment from the story even at its most cli­matic mo­ments.

Kathryne Card­well is a Win­nipeg writer.

Grey Eyes: A Novel

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