Book Review

The Mask That Sang by Susan Currie

impressive, purposeful, children's fiction

I’ve been trying to learn more about Canada now that I live here, and a key part of Canadian history to explore – if you’re a progressive type person rather than someone who thinks colonialism is something to be uncritically approved of – is indigenous histories.

Back in my native Middle England, we aren’t taught much about the realities of British colonialism in school. One of the effects of this is that people (eg smug poshboy, alcoholic, hobbyist-politician Winston Churchill) who encouraged and legislated for abhorrent practices in other parts of the world continue to be lauded as national heroes. Ew.

The psyche of the English (and I do mean the English) is not reflective, it does not look upon past sins and seek for a greater understanding; the English psyche looks back towards a time of power and influence and sees it as “greatness”: it was good when “Britannia ruled the waves”, the brexitty bastards think, because they don’t pay attention to the exploitation and cultural and literal genocide that Britannia used to “rule”.

You can fairly criticise many Canadians on prejudice (eg the whole Justin Trudeau blackface thing and the racist Quebecois man being filmed shamelessly telling the Sikh leader of one of the political parties he doesn’t “look Canadian”), but what you can’t criticise Canada’s recent governments for is a willingness to formally acknowledge and accept that some terrible and morally unforgivable things happened and continue to happen to the indigenous communities of North America. Of course, words without action aren’t that helpful, but it’s more than we do in England…

///

Sorry.

That thing has happened again where several days pass between starting one of these and having the chance to sit down in front of a computer and finish it.

I’ve started a new job and I’m actually busy again, for the first time in a while lol. Hopefully I’ll get slightly better at managing my time and become able to balance blogging, watching HBO on a cross-trainer, reading books, doing romance, owning a dog, making and performing great poetry as well as completing all the demands that come from being one of the co-founders of your favourite new indie publisher, TRUTHER PRESS. Hopefully, hopefully.

Anyway…

The Mask That Sang is an award-winning children’s novel about indigenous traditions, and it looks in detail at the repercussions and generational trauma resultant from the terribly thought-through “residential schools” programme that existed for several decades (perhaps longer) during the twentieth century.

Over an extended period, it was official social services policy to swoop in with the slightest (often fabricated) justification and remove children from the care of their indigenous parents.

These children were then sent to what amounted to reeducation camps, where their language, their culture and their identity was deliberately and aggressively policed, controlled and erased. The children who came through these “schools” were then released back into the world as understandably messed-up adults, who would have no way to reenter the societies they had been a part of when children, because they’d lost the language and learnt only contempt.

This cultural genocide, this pre-meditated attempt to “civilise” people away from the traditions of pre-Columbian America, were cruel, violent and abusive. The effects of this trauma on individuals often resulted in adult coping-behaviours that manifested as addiction, exploitative sex work and becoming victims of violent [domestic] crime. These people in turn would then be, racistly, held up as “examples” of the innate inferiority of indigenous peoples: if the people who the “kind white people” “educated” “as best they could” how to “be like a European” ended up as drunk, high, sex workers, then what hope did the people who didn’t “benefit” from residential schools have?

The systemic abuse and addition of fresh, new, personal trauma on top of centuries of generational trauma is pretty fucking shitty, and to then use the repercussions of this trauma to justify the continuation of said traumatic practice is reprehensible. (Obviously, the English were the main people who financially benefitted from the slave trade so I’m not claiming any fucking moral high ground.)

Canada acknowledges, officially, the damage it did/has done, but there are still indigenous communities here who lack clean drinking water, whose reservations have been forcibly sold to oil companies, etc, so the country is far from fucking perfect. But it is acknowledging that the problem is real, which is a start, right?

This children’s novel I read explores this legacy. The protagonist is a young girl, Cass, whose mother gave birth to her when a teenager, living within the foster care system. They live in poverty and Cass is frequently bullied at school, until suddenly Cass’ birth grandmother (who neither she nor her mother ever met) dies and leaves them her small house.

The family doesn’t suddenly become rich, it’s not that kinda story, but they are no longer impoverished. And though Cass’s mother – who dropped out of school when pregnant – struggles to find work, Cass is able to make friends and learn that her grandmother was a survivor of the residential schools system.

She, like Cass’ mother, had a child young, but was pressured into giving her daughter up for adoption. In discovering her family history, Cass is able to grow towards self-knowledge and learn about her identity and the history of prejudicial government policies (over centuries) that left her mother and grandmother so alone, unhappy and unsupported.

It’s a beautiful, short, novel that engages with a serious topic in a manner that is appropriate for children but far from patronising. The narrative it tells is strong enough for its very serious – and important – discussions about history and identity to be delivered softly.

The Mask That Sang is about culture, family and the wilful blindness of the coloniser and the ways in which inherent racism can manifest. It is about people not being trapped by the same things as their parents, but sometimes being trapped just as powerfully by something completely different. It’s also about generational trauma. It’s a serious novel for children. It works.

Order The Mask That Sang direct from the publisher here.


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