The simple truth about stories is that they impart who we are. Whether telling tales or reading/listening to what others have to say. King suggests that not only do stories explain us to ourselves and others, there are often deeper implications - sometimes dangerous ones. In this series of essays derived from the CBC's Massey Lecture series, this talented novelist and social commentator brings a fresh view to telling stories - a Native American outlook. This compelling overview is long overdue, and King manages to cover a great deal of territory in six essays. The questions he raises are a combination of long-standing viewpoints along with modern shifts of emphasis.
King starts by contrasting two mythologies - one probably wholly unknown to you and one familiar. The first is the story of the Woman Who Fell From the Sky. Tumbling from the depths of space, "Charm" [for such is her name] arrives on a world completely covered in water. After several attempts, Charm convinces Otter to bring mud from the sea bottom so that there may be land for creatures to walk on. Not all wanted to be on the new land, so the animals divided the world into water creatures and land creatures with the birds able to cope with both. Thus the world was founded on a spirit of cooperation.
The other myth is called "Genesis", the Judeo-Christian version of similar events, but with a very different frame of reference. The humans are restricted by One Rule - break it and you will die. The Rule is broken, of course, and King is at pains to avoid pointing the finger of guilt. The point of this comparison is that the Judeo-Christian myth contains the absolute condition of the One Rule, and the vengeful deity that imposed it. Charm would never have laid down such a stricture and King suggests that the Genesis story need not have done so either. Native American spirits have little need for such single-mindedness, as he explains in the following lectures. Why does Judeo-Christianity need it?
King intertwines a number of personal accounts with his Aboriginal stories, and these are hardly intrusive in the narrative. He follows his mother's attempts to gain employment equity in an industry she's well-qualified to excel in. Looking for some adventure, he travels to New Zealand taking up various roles - one of which lasts but a day. Throughout his journeys, his origins become a question of increasing importance. In the European ["white"] world, the image of "the Indian" is in a constant state of flux. Ignorant on the one hand, but devious and cunning on the other. The Indian as Entertainer takes up much of one essay, and you are made aware that you likely hold that view without being aware of it. When the white world finally realised that neither extermination nor assimilation was going to define the fate of Aboriginal people, forms of "protection" were introduced in both the US and Canada. The "protection" must rest on defining just what an Indian is, and the long-term impact of the legislation is closely examined by King in the lecture "What is it about us that you don't like?" and that title proves symptomatic. The Indians don't know and the whites haven't even asked the question. It must be asked and clearly answered.
King concludes the series with an essay on "Private stories". While those might seem out of place here, the author shows how small, personal tales have long-reaching implications. A "private story" almost certainly carries elements that have meaning to each of us. He concludes each story by asking whether you think your life might have followed a different path if you'd only heard this story earlier. "You've heard it now" he says, throwing down the gauntlet to challenge the reader to consider what changes in your life to make now. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]