Elders say that if we listen hard enough, we can feel the ancestors, even the long dead ones, and they will power us, stand with us and show us the way. I never worry about being lost no more. ‘Cause I know now the maps are in our heads. Just like the songs and the stories. We humans go away from our maps and forget the way, but if we dream hard enough, the maps come back.
Dreams figure heavily in Song Over Quiet Lake, the second novel from Canadian author Sarah Felix Burns. The novel itself was inspired by a dream, says Burns, one about an elderly woman from the Tlingit tribe whom Burns met during her days at the University of British Columbia. “She told me many captivating stories about life in the Yukon in the early decades of the 20th century,” Burns said in a newspaper interview, “and she made sense of the world through storytelling and a very keen sense of humour.”
These stories and this friendship are recreated in this novel about the relationship between Sylvia Hardy, a twenty-something college student, and Lydie Jim, the 82 year old Tlingit elder whose wisdom and philosophy helps Sylvia make sense of her own painful past. Lydie’s life has been peppered with loss – as a child she was taken from her family to one of the government residential schools where she was abused and mistreated. As an adult, her own children were lost to foster care and one to death. But Lydie’s enthusiasm for life has not faltered, and she believes in the power of love and kindness to overcome even the most difficult of circumstances. “Doesn’t matter what job you have or how many alphabets you have after your name,” she announces during her university graduation. “Give love and be kind. People will hurt you and people will take from you. But you don’t have to be that type of person. You go be the person who gives and loves.”
Perhaps this seems a simplistic view of the world…then again, the most effective solution to a serious problem is often the simplest. Sylvia’s confusion and angst arises from guilt over the abduction and murder of her baby brother, which occurred while he was in her care. That pivotal event irrevocably altered her family dynamic, virtually destroying her relationship with her mother. Through Lydie’s sage counsel, coming mostly in the form of stories, Sylvia is able to move beyond this pain and begin to forgive herself.
The novel is set in Vancouver in the 1990’s, and told from multiple first person perspectives; thus the reader hears the stories of not only Lydie and Sylvia, but also Lydie’s two adult sons, and Sylvia’s mother. Interwoven into the narrative is the tale of an elderly Anglican priest, one of Lydie’s teachers at the residential school she was forced to attend. Burns provides an interesting historical perspective of the Native Indian experience in northern Canada during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Although each characters tale contains elements of sorrow and pain, the book is ultimately hopeful and even humorous at times. Song Over Quiet Lake is an uplifting novel which reminds us of the power of story, the redeeming nature of friendship, and the wisdom the elderly can offer if we choose to listen.
~~~For an opportunity to receive a new copy of Song Over Quiet Lake, leave a comment here. A winner will be drawn at random on January 7, 2010~~~
by Sarah Felix Burns
published by Second Story Press, 2009