Indigenous mythology, history tale feels flat
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