Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Truth, Reconciliation, and Amnesia: Porcupines and China Dolls and the Canadian Conscience

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Truth, Reconciliation, and Amnesia: Porcupines and China Dolls and the Canadian Conscience

Article excerpt

The events of the workshop again made the news that afternoon.... In one week, Chief David, James and Jake would be known all over the NWT. In two weeks, they would be forgotten.

Robert Arthur Alexie

Porcupines and China Dolls

IN ROBERT ARTHUR ALEXIE'S 2002 NOVEL Porcupines and China Dolls, three former residential school students shock the fictional hamlet of Aberdeen, NWT, when they disclose the sexual abuse they suffered as young boys under the care of the institution. The people have gathered this day for a healing workshop to address the suffering that alcohol has been causing in their community; the rising action of the novel is devoted to describing this dysfunction, as the narrative follows the main character, James Nathan, through his daily routine of drinking, casual sex, and suicide attempts. But when James and his friends Jake and David--now in their forties--finally put a name to the nightmares that haunt them, they begin the process of taking control of their lives and ending the cycles of abuse. As David says to the assembled people: "I'm tired of runnin. This is where it ends. Right here 'n right now. This is where we make the change for ourselves 'n for our children. I will run no more!" (198).

The characters' attempts to "face their demons" then becomes literalized, and what follows is an almost-apocalyptic battle scene, as beadyeyed, reeking demons begin to crawl out of the walls and ceiling. The men become Warriors; they grow to impossible heights, and their voices are so mighty that "the roof of the community hall blew off and scattered to the four winds" (204). Armed suddenly with lances and swords, they take their bloody revenge on the "demons, dreams and nightmares" that have been tormenting them (196). The community joins in the epic struggle, and in an orgy of pop-culture references, the victims of residential schools are re-empowered:

   James Nathan was like a knight in shining armour. He was like Kevin
   Costner in Dances With Wolves. He was like Crazy Horse charging
   into battle. He was like Geronimo at his best.

   Young girls dreamed of marrying him. Young boys dreamed of becoming
   him. Elders dreamed they were him and cried for the good old days.
   (205)

Alexie's readers will recognize this scene as the cathartic climax of the healing narrative--even if it is hyperbolic beyond even what Sophocles could imagine. By finally telling their stories in a public setting, the victims seem to have purged themselves of the hurt that has already claimed many lives in Aberdeen. As one of the elder women has told them, "It's gettin' rid of it through talkin' 'n cryin' that's gonna help you. If you don't get rid of it, it'll kill you like it's done to so many of our People" (105). After the battle is over, a cool, cleansing wind sweeps through the hall, and the people soon begin to mark the re-emergence of some of their traditions: they travel out onto the land to carry the body of an abused former student to the Old People--cremating him in the old way--and after decades of obeying the Church's regulations, they witness the return of the drum. Trough storytelling, ceremony, and song, the people stitch their community back together again.

It comes as a surprise, then, when James wakes up the morning after his disclosure and has the following exchange with his girlfriend:

"You okay?" Brenda asked.

"Yeah," he lied. He got up and made coffee. Snow.

"Whatcha gonna do today?" she asked.

"Check for caribou." Maybe blow my brains out too. "You?" (219)

Despite the climactic events of the previous day, things seem to have returned to normal. Sure enough, only a few pages later, James attempts suicide again, and he will try it several more times before the novel ends. The event of the community's "healing," after all, occurs only two-thirds of the way through the book, and rather than arriving at the expected denouement and hopeful, happy ending, we watch the characters continue to struggle, drink, and die. …

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