canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Dominique Demers and Translated from French by Leonard Sugden
Ekstasis Editions Canada, 2001

Reviewed by Ibi Kaslik 

When I was twelve I was enchanted by a book called The Island of the Blue Dolphin, which was based on the true story of Karana, an American Native girl who was abandoned by her tribe on an Island and was forced to defend herself from wild dogs, while she awaited her rescue on an isolated island off the Pacific coast. 

As a pre-teen girl, Karana's solitude and independence fascinated and intrigued me; it showed me that women could survive, in even the fiercest and most primal conditions, and it taught me about First Nations People. 

Like Island of the Blue Dolphin, Maina is the story of an independent-spirited member of the Nearly Wolves tribe. Set 3500 years ago, not far from Quebec's Sept Iles along the St. Lawrence, Maina, which takes its name from the protagonist, is a rich and engaging book detailing the self-realization of a thirteen year-old Native girl. 

After her father is poisoned by the young and evil Saito, her detestable fiancée, she tries to elope with her young lover, a stranger from another tribe, but when the two young lovers are separated Maina is forced to travel north, past the tundra into the land without limits, into the land of the "Ice People". 

While the first part of the novel, which details the lives and struggles of the Nearly Wolves, Maina's own tribe, is compelling, when Maina meets Natak, an young Inuit man who find's Maina in his harsh landscape half-dead, the book because difficult to put down. 

Through living with the Ice People, Maina learns about their violent shared history and with much joy and sadness she learns to become part of a culture she was taught to loathe and fear within her own tribe: 

"They are cruel little people possessed of a wicked spirit. They have souls of ice. They live without fires in an icy desert and hunt enormous beasts that live under frozen waters. They stuff themselves with fat and eat raw meat, as animals do, with their horrible fangs biting into the frozen flesh. They know no pity." 

It's hard to tell the audience of this book, pitched as a young adult book, at times; it seems to be seething with sexually charged situations and scenes (wife-swapping and the problems that arise from this practice is a recurring theme that may be difficult to explain to your 10 year-old) Brutal and visceral hunting scenes also occur practically every second page, so let the squeamish be warned. Maina is violent and beautifully written, it is human and poignant in its description of the tentative quality of Native and Inuit life, and the author dramatizes Maina's personal story early on so the reader is immediately enthralled. 

Sometimes the translation is stilted and awkward which is jarring because the prose is mostly seamlessly hewed. 

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone of any age who wants a good story and to learn about First Nation people, and to anyone who spent too much time alone as a child reading about lonely Native girls adrift in a sea of abalone and blood. 

Ibi Kaslik is preparing for the release of her novel Skinny next Spring. She dreams of one day owning her very own banjo and retiring to the country with Mr. Mom.







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ISSN 1494-6114. 


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