Synopsis: All but kidnapped by social workers at age 3, Garnet Raven finds himself growing up in a series of foster homes, leaving him with a confused sense of identity. Eventually, as an adult, he finds himself serving time at a penitentiary. While he is here, he receives a letter from his family inviting him to come home after his release. Nervous, and a little reluctant, Garnet Raven accepts this offer and finds himself on an unique spiritual journey - not only to reconnect with lost family and with his community, but to recover his spirit and cultural identity as he learns to embody the traditions of the Anishanabe people.
Review & Commentary:
Keepern' Me is an intimate account of spiritual healing. This is not an action-driven novel with a fast-moving plot; but a character study told by two first-person perspectives: those of Garnet and his mentor, Keeper, who struggles to overcome alcoholism. Between these two narratives, Wagamese lets the reader delve into the protagonist's psyche and explore the mysticism of Ojibwe spiritual tradition, reverence for nature, the important role family plays in our lives, the process of healing, and the complexities of reconnecting with family and community after long separation. He takes us on a long, winding journey exploring the impacts of foster care on Garnet Raven, daily life on the White Dog reserve, learning traditional values, and Garnet's intimate relationships with his family.
Wagamese is a wonderful narrator. As I read this novel, I often got the feeling that I was sitting on a plastic chair with sweat sticking my thighs, cracking beers in my neighbour's yard and sharing stories until the sun went down. I could imagine a friend with a big, toothy grin cracking up as they retold a story; then their eyes growing dark and hooded as they shared a more solemn remembrance with me. To stir up such a vivid feeling of confidence exhibits a great use of technique. Wagamese utilizes dialectical speech to help conjure this feeling throughout the novel and does it remarkably well. His humour is quintessentially Canadian and feels both innocent and familiar -
"I was a homeless Hawaiian for a while there in Niagara Falls. Had these flowered shirts I found at the Sally Ann, mirrored sunglasses on a rope around my neck, brushcut, and even got a beat up old ukulele at a pawnshop. We'd be drinkin' wine in the park and I'd be teaching people how to say things in fictituous Hawaiian and singing these dumb songs on that ukulele. Touching stuff like "KahmonIwannalayya," "Nookienookienow" or "The Best Leis Are Hawaiian" (pg. 22).
His simple, stripped-down writing is vivid, warm, and inviting. Wagamese thus transports his readers easily to wonderful camping spots, traditional breakfasts, and mornings canoeing -
"And what a morning. The sun was just coming up and the purple light was fading off, revealing mist on the bay and the circles of rising fish. There was more birds in the trees than I ever heard before and just beyond the mouth of the bay was a beaver hauling a long branch of poplar to his den somewhere further down the shoreline. The long dwindling Y in the water sent ripples right up to where my camp was. By the time I got the fire stoked up and going again the sun was completely up.
For me, breakfast in the bush is the greatest thing in the world. There's nothing quite like that first big slug of campfire coffee and the smell of bacon and eggs against the cold crispness of the air. I fished awhile and hooked a nice little pickerel from the pool and ate him up right away too" (pg. 240).
Wagamese focuses on the White Dog reserve as the primary setting, and it plays an important role in the novel by symbolizing the contrasts between traditional Ojibwe life and today's mainstream culture, as well as providing a backdrop to explore the difficulties in balancing tradition and spirituality with a fast-paced world. While at times Wagamese's descriptions of reserve life seem a little idealistic, I also found them to be refreshing and uplifting. Real problems do face our reserves, such as lack of clean water or educational facilities, but Wagamese chooses to focus almost entirely on the positive impacts of reserve life, only making subtle suggestions about its hardships. He describes how (when reserves are distanced from mainstream society) they can act as a safe, quiet haven from a busier, more complicated city life; how the closeness to wilderness and the simplicity of life can be balming to an injured spirit; and how the close, connected community provides meaningful support through life's hardships. This departure from the typical doom-and-gloom perspective presented by the media gives the reader a more positive outlook on our reserves and one that I think is much needed. It also serves as an important commentary by the author: that the dominant "white" culture fails to provide young people with spiritual guidance, meaningful supports, and a reverence for nature, leading to problems with addiction, a lack of self-awareness, failure to respect others, and environmental pollution.
Wagamese also uses Ojibwe beliefs to challenge mainstream conceptions of masculinity, demonstrating an alternative that balances masculinity with femininity. One that involves having the courage to cry, ask for help, and seek guidance; one that requires being able to admit to mistakes and weaknesses; one that involves hugging and demonstrating affection and gentleness; and one that is grounded on respect for others, family, tradition, and nature.
Keepern' Me leaves a lasting impression on the reader. It is a novel to pass away cool evenings with a cup of strong tea and a warm blanket. It will have a special meaning to those who have undergone their own healing journeys. It is deserving of its praise, particularly as a debut novel from Wagamese. It leaves something to savour and to reflect on. A worthy read.