- Magic Weapons: Aboriginal Writers Remaking Community after Residential School
Magic Weapons opens with a powerful and revelatory introduction by Basil H. Johnston, and the chapters that follow do not let the reader down. McKegney's text no doubt will itself become an important 'weapon' for the field of Indigenous studies as well as other fields such as Canadian literature and history, auto/biography, and life writing. Texts that deal with the residential school experience by Inuit writer Anthony Apakark Thrasher, Mi'kmaq poet Rita Joe, and Cree playwright [End Page 308] and novelist Tomson Highway are the focus of this volume, and McKegney suggests that activism by authors and critics is possible and necessary.
He does not see the authors and their texts as activist in the ways that one might first imagine: that is, through revising colonial history, exposing injustice and the victimization of Indigenous people, or advocating political solutions to injustices. Rather, they are activist in the ways they enable and demonstrate 'narratives of agency' through the use of artful literary and narrative strategies. As McKegney puts it, the autobiography of a residential school survivor may document the erosion or 'suffocation' of a particular Indigenous identity, but the act of that documentation also 'revitalizes, . . . recreates, performs and displays that identity anew, while establishing spaces of interpretation in which readers can conduct similar examinations of their own experiences.' It is up to the critic to be alert to these strategies. Another way the critic can take on an activist role is to consider ways in which the authors' strategies empower their communities - what he calls, borrowing the term from scholar and critic Jace Weaver, 'communitist' readings.
McKegney applies these kinds of approaches productively to all three of the writers he focuses on, bringing to the fore how Thrasher, for example, is able to create agency and complexity in a life story that, in the trajectory of its events, points to disaster and defeat. Probably the most knowledgeable scholar on Thrasher's writing, McKegney draws upon not only the 164-page published work, Thrasher . . . Skid Row Eskimo, but also the 512-page unedited manuscript that preceded it. In his exploration of The Autobiography of Rita Joe, McKegney confronts the potential for her textual lacunae and almost relentlessly positive narrative perspective to be read as obscuring or denying crucial history and experience concerning residential school. He teases out, through his readings of poems she includes in the text and their interaction with her prose, how her work can be understood as empowering both to her and to her community. His readings add to our understanding of the intricacy of the seemingly simple language she uses and the gaps she employs. Finally, in examining Tomson Highway's Kiss of the Fur Queen, McKegney unfolds how Highway's narrative, like Rita Joe's poems, enacts the kinds of processes and solutions it presents to his community for dealing with the traumatic history of residential schooling: in Highway's case, the relearning of Cree spiritual teachings and the reinterpretation, through these teachings, of that history and trauma. McKegney's title comes from Highway's telling of a traditional Cree story in Kiss of the Fur Queen, in which the hero is bid by his father to remake a world gone evil with 'magic weapons.'
These few highlights, however, only touch on the breadth of this engaging work. For example, McKegney brings in an exploration of [End Page 309] the particular history of Mi'kmaq colonial experience in his analysis of Rita Joe's autobiography and discusses the place of criticism focused on the authenticity of the author's voice and the editing in his examination of Thrasher's text. The first two chapters of Magic Weapons provide important contextual material, such as historical interpretations of the residential school phenomenon in Canada and a survey of Indigenous literature dealing with residential schooling, as well as a discussion of critical approaches to Indigenous literature. My only caveat is that in carving out his critical territory McKegney can sometimes be dogmatic, so he...