Motorcycles & Sweetgrass, by Drew Hayden Taylor

Okay, I cannot resist. The image above is a 1953 Indian Chief motorcycle — I’ve never been on a motorcycle, let alone owned one, but even I know the mystique that surrounds the Indian Chief. The picture is there because a 1953 Indian Chief bike is a central (albeit non-speaking) character in Drew Hayden Taylor’s first novel, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass. The novel is strange enough that, if you object to a review of it being introduced with a picture of a motorcycle, I am sure you will not like it. If you can accept the image (do you realize that KfC will now be getting a large number of hits from googlers who are looking for pix of an “Indian Chief” motorcycle?), then read on, because I suspect you might want to consider the book.

ARC courtesy Knopf Canada

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass is part of Knopf Canada’s New Face of Fiction series, but that is a bit misleading. While it is Taylor’s first published novel, he has an impressive resume. An Ojibway from the Curve Lake First Nations, he is also a stand-up comedian of note, a playwright and journalist and, perhaps most important, has worked on a number of television series and documentaries. This novel started out as a script for a “cool movie”, in the author’s own words, and it is worth keeping that in mind when you read the book.

The prologue of Motorcycles and Sweetgrass introduces us to Lillian, a young Ojibway woman, having a swim with a young male friend. Lillian is due to leave for a residential school the next day:

Manifest Destiny, as the White people to the south believed, dictated that this little Anishnawbe girl be removed from her home and sent away to be taught about the Battle of Hastings, dangling participles, and how to draw a pie chart. For a year or two anyway. Starting tomorrow. And this man, who’d come into her life a few months ago, was about to be left behind.

“It’s your new boyfriend, isn’t it. What do women see in him?” the man asked.

“Everybody used to talk about me. Now they talk about him. I don’t understand. What’s he got that I don’t. He’s so depressing. What’s his name again?”

“…Jesus.”

Not too many pages later, we meet Lillian Benojee again, now an elderly woman (she has 18 grandchildren) on her deathbed, surrounded by her very extended family “hovering about her house, bringing her food, taking out dishes of half-eaten casseroles, all frustrated by their inability to do anything to help Lillian Benojee.” One of her children, Maggie Second, is chief of the First Nations community of Otter Lake — she has held that office for three years since her husband, the previous chief, died in a boating accident and she was acclaimed as his successor. Maggie has a son, Virgil (“the bell curve was invented for boys like him”) who is in the seventh grade; he becomes an essential character in the story when the motorcycle arrives at his grandmother’s house:

Virgil had a much better view of the motorcycle that was coming up his grandmother’s driveway. An old one, by the looks of it, but in immaculate condition. It glistened in the sunlight as it stopped by the side door. Like most boys his age, Virgil had more than a passing interest in gas-powered vehicles, especially anything that could be classified as “cool.” And this scarlet vision before him put the word cool to shame. It was red, with white trim, old-fashioned headlights, a black solo seat complete with fringes made from what appeared to be black leather, and larger-than-normal wheel fenders. Hanging from the end of each handlebar was a feather, but each was different. The feather on the right looked like it had come from an eagle. But the one hanging from the left was darker, smaller, shinier.

The rider of the motorcycle is young and white and he finagles his way past a couple of Lillian’s protective sons into her room. They talk and he kisses her passionately, despite the decades of difference in their ages. Virgil sees it all and does not really understand but he knows that he should be worried.

From here on in, you need to be willing to accept the mystical and the magical to continue with this book. Both John the motorcyclist (he will use a number of last names and the color of his eyes keeps changing) and Virgil have embarked on a voyage of discovery. A number of other characters, both human and animal (raccoons become particularly threatening — you will note their presence on the book’s cover), will play a part.

It is also at this point that the author’s screen-writing talents start to takeover as Taylor juggles (quite successfully) a number of subplots. Some are quite funny. For example, the band has purchased a large piece of adjoining property — Maggie is more or less continually beset by band members who have great (and conflicting) ideas about what to do with it. She also has a younger brother who has spent the last few years on an island in Otter Lake, where he is inventing a First Nations martial arts form. Virgil recruits him to help sort out the puzzle of John the Motorcyclist.

Taylor moves back and forth between the mundane and the mystical. While it makes for a fast-moving and quite readable book, in the final analysis it is not much more. There is nothing the matter with that (particularly if you are looking for a bit of escapism). Motorcycles & Sweetgrass is an entertaining first novel (if you know the work of Thomas King, another First Nations writer, you will find yourself in familiar territory). And for those who know and appreciate the almost iconic reputation of the Indian Chief Motorcycle, its role in the novel alone makes the book worthwhile.

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20 Responses to “Motorcycles & Sweetgrass, by Drew Hayden Taylor”

  1. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    It sounds a fairly complex book – lots of themes and sub-themes, which coupled with the mystical and magical elements might make it quite complicated to follow! An interesting review anyway, and goes to show the liveliness of the literary scene in Canada. Its not available over here in the UK yet but I will watch its progress with interest

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: It is to Taylor’s credit that he “manages” his many sub-themes — both the real and the mystical — very well, so the book has quite a good flow to it that is reader friendly. I doubt that this is a book that will travel very well (then again, I often under recognize European interest in First Nations literature, so maybe I am wrong). We shall see.

  3. Kerry Says:

    It sounds more like a movie that I might like to watch than I book I want to read. I love the picture of the Indian Chief, but it sounds like the novel may veer too far into the mystical and magical for my tastes, particularly if the end is primarily escapism. However, if a book is going to go in for the mystical and magical, I prefer that it go whole hog (no motorcycle pun intended….okay, okay, it was), which this novel apparently does.

    I really enjoyed the review, Kevin. And I agree with Tom, it does point out the liveliness of the Canadian literary scene.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    SPOILERS

    Kerry: Thanks — you’ve provided the opening I needed to get to the next level of the book. As you might have guessed (I hope) from hints in the review, John the Motorcyclist is from the Other World — he is an earthly representation of Nanabush, also known as The Trickster, an Ojibway spirit. I don’t know a lot about aboriginal spirituality, but The Trickster is a very convenient creature to have on hand to explain away all those odd things that happen in the real world.

    That quote I include about him competing with Jesus for attention comes very early in the book, so any alert reader is aware from the start of this potential link between reality and the mystical threads of the book. And the author does bring it fully into play for the last quarter, when Virgil starts investigating the history of the story of Nanabush — since John at this point has already seduced his mother and looks ready to move on even further.

    All that indicates the novel has more depth to it than I was able to indicate in my original review. In fact, I’ll give Taylor credit for creating the most challenging “reveal” issue that I have faced so far as a blogger. I don’t mind spoilers at all personally, but I certainly know that a lot of readers do — and they would very much want to find the Nanabush story themselves, not in a review. I hope this comment hasn’t done that for them, but it did come with a warning.

    I’m still not sure you would want to read the book, although there is one angle that you might find appealing (now that I know you grew up in the South). It seems to me that region has what I’ll call a “spirituality” conflict between the religions of whites and blacks — one of the themes that this book explores is the “spirituality” conflict that First Nations people are expected to deal with if they want to survive in the modern world. Hence, the powerful presence of the Indian Chief motorcycle.

  5. Kerry Says:

    Kevin,

    I am very happy you took the opportunity to expand on the review. While I have no immediate plans to read it, I enjoy reading your take. The spoiler is quite interesting and does make me more likely to read it. Because I tend to be more of a prose and character type of guy, I typically do not mind plot spoilers for most literary works. After all, if it is a great book, I would want to read it again and again, despite knowing exactly what will happen.

    I am intrigued by the “spirituality” conflict you mention. I cannot say I have read too much literature (Flannery O’Connor excepted) that delves much into those types of issues. The most recent and best example would be Things Fall Apart which is absolutely brilliant and which handles the spirituality conflict more adeptly and with more respect for both sides than any other work I have ever read.

    Just making me think of that work makes me like this one (and your review) even more.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Kerry. I would not jump to buy the book but sometime down the road you might want to take a look. It has only been a week since I finished reading it, but I will admit that it is improving with aging.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    A definite perhaps this one, I’d be interested to hear how your thoughts continue to mature.

    I’m a little suspicious of tales that set “native” spirituality against “white”, not least because I’m utterly unpersuaded that any culture is any more spiritual than any other (and I’m particularly unconvinced that native cultures are more spiritual than colonial ones). It smacks always to me of the myth of the noble savage, the untutored other closer to nature and the spirit, but unable to stand up to the advance of the dominant white culture.

    I’m probably reading too much in there, but it is a pernicious myth, ascribing to culture and belief what I think is better explained by disparate technology and acquired disease immunities. Things Fall Apart is a definite exception though, vastly more complex and subtle, a terrible meeting of peoples with tragic consequences. Here, I wonder if it wouldn’t have made a better movie.

    Or perhaps I’m just in a curmudgeonly mood. Anyway, is it still growing in memory Kevin?

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: If you were Canadian, I would say “read the book”. You aren’t, so I think my advice would be that this is one you can give a pass. Taylor is not oppressive in contrasting the two notions of spirituality (in fact, he is more on the side of playful). All of which is fun and makes for a good read, but given the range of your interests I don’t think you would find this worth your time. And you are not being curmudgeonly in any way whatsoever.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Annoyingly, while in Canada I meant to pick up that collection of stories based in Calgary you reviewed recently, but I lost the title and with patchy internet connections wasn’t able to check.

    That said, Banff has lost its main bookshop, so I’d probably not have found it anyway.

    Playful makes it more tempting, perhaps next time I’m in Canada, I may be out in Quebec later this year.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Yes, the opening of a Chapters downscale store (where I am sure you could have found Vanishing and Other Stories) put paid to the independent book store in Banff.

    The prospect of a Quebec visit is interesting — there is a lot of very, very good literature in translation which would make sense. I’ll contemplate an essay.

  11. Wandering Coyote Says:

    Hey, I just found your site while doing a search for Motorcycles & Sweetgrass. I also review for Random House & got and ARC of this book. I really enjoyed it and the word you used, “playful” describes it perfectly. I see we also have some other reviews in common so I’m going to do a more thorough recce of your blog now!

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Welcome, Wandering Coyote. I do remember parts of this novel with great fondness.

  13. Read a Good Book Lately? Says:

    HI Kevin,

    Thanks for a great review of Motorcycles and Sweetgrass. I just finished reading the book and it tickled my funny bone. Your word playful describes it perfectly. As a woman reader, I found it hilarious that the biggest trick of all from the ‘trickster’ was the overwhelming effect he had on the women in the story. Amazing what a pair of tight leather pants can do eh?

    I look forward to checking your blog frequently now that I’ve found it. I’m a big fan of CanLit and I like hearing what other Canadians are reading. Keep up the good work!

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the comment and I am glad you liked the book. It does have some very funny parts to it (are you sure it was the leather pants and not the motorcycle that were the attraction?). Canadian publishing tends to gear up in August, so I think it would be safe to say that you will be seeing more reviews of Canadian work here soon — and we will again be running the Shadow Giller Prize from this site.

  15. Nassy Fesharaki Says:

    It is not only the motorbike here or your book that involves it that I like. I like your Indian name too. I am sure that you recall when the time you gave a lecture in York University, read to us part of your book and I asked you what your Indian Name was. You are surely a great asset for Canadian literarture and life. All the best.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Nassy: I think you may be confusing me with the author — and am flattered by the result. I will leave your comment up in case Drew does drop by here some time.

  17. Thomas Vincent Says:

    What are the three most important inventions by white people?

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thomas: This post has been getting a lot of hits in the last few days so I am guessing that someone somewhere has been encouraging people to read Motorcycles and Sweetgrass.

    And I am also guessing that you would personally put “motorcycles” on your list of three. :-)

    • Thomas Vincent Says:

      KevinfromCanada: “Motorcycles and Sweetgrass: is a wonderful book. I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Taylor at the Roundhouse Theatre in Vancouver BC. We were at the theatre to see “In A World Created By A Drunken God”. I easily recognized, at the theatre, how popular this very colourful writer has become. The turnout was very good.

      . There seems to be a great deal of interest in Mr.Taylor’s work in general. “My Sexy” is a wonderful collection of stories that MrTaylor has used as a vehicle to bring together other great story tellers of our country. A very good read.

      1. The Toilet
      2. ?
      3. Motorcycles

      Only one more of the three great invention of white people left to remember. I believe it may have been a food. I guess I will just have to read the book again. “GaWaabaman”

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