Richard Van Camp (or his fiction-writing alter ego) has a Tłı̨chǫ grandfather who has medicine power, who’s performed miracles, whose walk from the Mackenzie Mountains to the Barren Lands as a young orphan shaved two days off any known route.
“And now here we were. Together. Watching E.T.,” Van Camp writes, in his typically understated and hilarious conversational tone.
I loved nearly all of the short stories in Van Camp’s latest collection, but when I got to “Ehtsée/Grandpa,” I was actually kind of blown away.
The grandfather speaks mostly Tłı̨chǫ; the narrator speaks mostly English, but they both cry when E.T. nearly dies. Later on, the narrator will learn that his grandfather thought E.T. was “a movie about a mushroom who helped a boy.”
But he’s still happy that his grandfather liked the movie, “because I felt like my grandfather had heard me. He’d understood. I was happy he thought of E.T. when he thought of me.”
Like many of Van Camp’s stories, the watching of E.T. is a small tale nestled within a larger tale nestled within the largest tale of all: who are we, what are we doing here, what does it all mean?
The narrator confronts the fact of his amazing grandfather (and culture, and history: “I had no idea we believed in reincarnation.”) while also dealing with a new job, not getting paid, and worrying about running out of weed and whatever’s going on with his mother’s boyfriend and the family homestead back home. Some of this is pretty serious stuff, but his story is mainly hilarious, then bittersweet, then hilarious again.
It’s also beautifully local. On his way out of Behchokǫ̀ heading to Yellowknife, the narrator spots his grandparents and knows immediately what will happen if he picks them up: “Bingo, Walmart, KFC, more Bingo, church, A&W, back to Bingo, possibly paying for them at the Super 8 for the night, plus bags and bags of groceries that I’d have to pay for.”
Did I mention the narrator had rented E.T. “from the Yellowknife Public Library, my favourite place on Earth along with the loft my father had built for me in the log house.”
I could go on, but maybe I’ll just say here that anytime a book reviewer is just quoting from the book, it’s because she really liked the book.
I should probably admit that I’ve lived in Yellowknife almost six years and this is the first Richard Van Camp book I’ve read. I can’t really explain it, other than to say I was under the impression he mainly wrote for young adults. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
The title alone ensured that I’d be reading Moccasin Square Gardens. It’s a great play on words, and even better to find out that it’s a local nickname for the Roaring Rapids Hall in Fort Smith, N.W.T., where Van Camp grew up and where nearly all the stories in this collection are set.
I have to wonder … why is it that I read these stories, which are all set in and around Van Camp’s actual life, and didn’t ask myself what was real and what wasn’t, and then actually demand to know, as I kind of did when reading Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth? Is there some kind of sexism at play?
Or is it that Van Camp’s stories are more obviously crafted, less dark, and that they ring totally true, regardless of whether they’re fact or fiction, or even sci fi (there are two sci-fi stories in this collection, both of which I could’ve done without).
Or maybe that his stories are more conventional, so I just didn’t find myself pausing to ask the question?
I really can’t say.
So I’ll just say that these stories are fun and funny and touching and powerful. Even biting (see: “I am Filled with a Trembling Light,” where the narrator delivers a pretty serious threat to the RCMP officer — or maybe all of us, us settlers, I mean — who’s interviewing him).
There’s several of them I’d love to retell, even more than the E.T. bit, but that’s tricky because these stories are intricate and complex and polished right to perfection.
To put it in the kind of words I can imagine a Richard Van Camp narrator using: “Hey! This guy’s the real deal!”
Moccasin Square Gardens
By Richard Van Camp
Douglas & McIntyre 2019