Celia’s Song, by Lee Maracle.
Celia’s Song, by Lee Maracle. Cormorant Books (2014), 280 pages.
5 stars — BEST BOOK I’VE READ THIS YEAR!
A compelling story of loss and renewal by a Canadian First-Nation woman who incorporates her culture’s myths into her writing.
Lee Maracle (1950- ) is a Canadian First Nations Coast Salish author. Wikipedia calls her “an award-winning poet, novelist, performance storyteller, scriptwriter, actor and keeper/mythmaker.” A prolific writer and speaker, she is a recognized authority on a host of Indigenous issues, especially those concerning Indigenous women. She has taught at colleges, criticized the treatment of her people, and advised on First Nations policies.
As characters in Celia’s Song come to understand, when life becomes unbalanced, they must find a way to assert old traditions into new lives. Frightening changes are surrounding them, some all too human and others from the mythic world. Maracle makes both chillingly real. The story is set in a contemporary village on the coast of British Columbia. A serpent has been loosed from a decaying longhouse and threatens the village and its inhabitants. Its two heads are at war with each other. The “Restless” head overpowers the “Loyal” one and sets out on a journey of destruction. Old bones are rising to the surface. A mink, capable of changing into an owl when in danger, is one of the witnesses of the emerging story.
The serpent was off the house front and each and every one of them had grabbed some terrible thread of bitterness from the restless head that stopped them from being who they needed to be.
Celia is a woman in her thirties who lives alone. She is still reeling from the suicide of her adolescent son. She is a seer, sensitive to what is happening at different places and at different levels of experience. Celia and her large and extended family must come together to restore balance and order. Strong women are the core to the group; her mother and sister and various aunts and cousins and fictive kin. Men are also portrayed positively. Often they are willing to let the women lead, but Jacob, a teenage cousin who had been close to Celia’s son, is key to the success of their efforts. Whites are acknowledged to have caused the destruction of their world, but a few are brought into the family circle as straight and lesbian lovers. A dead grandmother offers guidance. As one character explains
This is not about anger, vengeance, or retaliation, Jacob. It is about the snake. It is about ritual, about ceremony, and restoring our original direction. It is not about finding yourself, Jacob. It is about finding your song, the song that will move you through life. We are not lost. We are traveling in the wrong direction. Song moves us toward our humanity and right now we are moving away from it.
Eventually story and song, ritual and ceremony are brought in to create the harmony necessary for survival.
Maracle raises and addresses core human questions of why humans suffer and how we keep trying. With unusual perception and wisdom, she calls on her tradition’s tools for understanding and dealing with the evils loose in our imperfect world. I refuse to call her book “fantasy” because she depicts the supernatural so naturally. She leaves us thoughtful and reassured as if we too were part of the rituals she describes.
I strongly urge all readers to read Celia’s Song, not only for the information it provides about particular Indigenous peoples, but for its beautiful writing and for how it addresses deeply universal questions.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been celebrating Indigenous Book Club Month with lists of recommendations about First Nation authors, male and female. I learned about this book there. In addition, Lisa Hill is sponsoring an Indigenous Literature Week, July 3-10, 2016, at her blog . She is Australian and has an excellent list of books by and about Indigenous Australians, along with links to reviews of them.