Porcupines and China Dolls, by Robert Arthur Alexie


To understand this story, it is important to know the People and where they came from and what they went through.


Even back then, the People realized the value of the white man’s education and didn’t make a big fuss about it.  They just didn’t realize how it was going to be done.  They put their faith and trust in His Majesty and His Majesty’s government and believed “said children” would be cared for.  They had no reason to think otherwise.

What they didn’t know when they put their “X” on the Treaty was that the church would be given the responsibility to educate their “said children”.  It sounded like patronage, and it is still a contentious issue to this day.  It probably always will be.

Soon after, the first mission boat arrived in Aberdeen, and thirty-five children were herded out of the Blue Mountains and dragged off to mission school.  The People have no words in their language for mission school.  The closest anyone has come to it is “hellhole”, but that’s beside the point.  The point is that years later twenty-four of the thirty-five would return.  More importantly, eleven wouldn’t.

It had begun, but no one knew what “it” was.  Things were beginning to change; the future was unfolding, as it should.

porcupines-and-china-dolls_theytustitlemain1From the day the first white man arrived, the treatment of Canada’s indigenous people has been dreadful.  First came the diseases like smallpox (sometimes spread deliberately with infected blankets) that wiped out entire populations and decimated others.  For those who survived as they built up resistance, then came the demons of alcohol and guns. 

Perhaps the most heart-breaking, and longest lasting, tragedy however was the mission, or residential, school, a practice that lasted more than a century, from the 1880s into the 1980s.  Children were taken from their families, culture and environment at age six or seven in a conscious effort to rob them not just of their heritage but of any chance to mature in a normal fashion.  Those who survived were returned at the age of 16, damaged and only partly there.  The mission school experience is a scar that will never heal for both those who went through it and those who inflicted it upon them.

The quotes above come from the opening pages of  Porcupines and China Dolls, a novel about the consequences of that travesty.  Set in 1999, its central characters are James Nathan and Jake Noland — they entered the mission school together more than 30 years earlier.  They helped each other survive the decade there; they have been trying, with limited success, to help each other as brothers ever since.  Those school experiences may be more than 20 years back in chronological history; Robert Arthur Alexie’s point is that they are ever present today.

The author is uniquely qualified to write this novel.  Born and raised in Fort McPherson in Canada’s Northwest Territories (where the novel is set), he became chief of the Tetlit Gwich’in band, was on the Gwich’in Tribal Council and helped negotiate the land claim agreement for the tribe.  While it is not explicitly stated, one can only assume he had first hand experience of the mission school regime.

Just yesterday, after a private audience with some survivors of mission school abuse, Pope Benedict finally formally “expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church” to indigenous children (the Roman Catholic missions ran about 75 per cent of the 130 schools). In doing so, the Catholic Church joined the Government of Canada and Anglican, Presbyterian and United Churches for the horror they had directly inflicted on 150,000 children — and indirectly on even more of their descendents.

Before going further, I’d also like to quote the most useful cover blurb that I can ever remember seeing.  It comes from Thomas King, himself an award-winning Native author:

A terrific book that deals with present day concerns.  Its narrative strategy is one that North American readers aren’t going to be used to…but for Native readers, what they’ll hear is some of the overtones of oral literature and oral story telling.

Readers should heed King’s implicit advice — just as Sam Selvon requires an ear, so does Alexie.  Oral literature also tends to wander down some sideroads and this book is no exception.  Be prepared to let the storyteller lead, because the path he takes is well worth following.

Alexie uses the first third of the book to frame his story (in a strange way, he’s not unlike Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in investing so much time before really beginning his story).  I’ll supply just one indication of the kind of care he takes in developing this:

This first generation of mission school children, after relearning their language (Reviewer’s note:  The children weren’t allowed to use their native tongue in the schools), ways and customs, began raising the second generation.  What they didn’t know was that they lacked one of the most important and fundamental skills needed to preserve the family unit.  This skill, which can only be learned, was parenting.  A recipe for disaster was in the making, but no one knew it at the time.

After these “parents” delivered their children to the school, as required by law, the first thing that happened to the boys was that their clothes were removed and burnt, their heads shaved and a uniform provided.  They become the “Porcupines” of the book’s title.  Much the same happens to the girls, although their haircut consists of bluntly-trimmed bangs and a straight cut across the back just below ear level — they are the China Dolls.

The individuals that emerge from those schools are only partly there; it isn’t just the skills of how to parent that have been missed.  The part that is there is badly damaged and the desire, no need, to escape is constantly present.  Getting drunk works for a day, although there is the hangover problem.  Meaningless sex (having never experienced love, it is not surprising that they cannot give it) is a complementary option, although it carries the risk of VD and pregnancy.  The only permanent solution, and Alexie does not hesitate to reference it often, is to put a gun in your mouth and pull the trigger — to this day, too many Native people still opt for this solution.

Part of the oral tradition is that the real world has a parallel Dream World, that is every bit as “real” to those who experience it, because it is based on lived experience.  It is a nightmare that they have lived, peopled by very real Evil Spirits.

The dramatic action of Porcupines and China Dolls begins when a hungover Jake sees Tom Kinney, the priest supervisor who sexually abused him a quarter century earlier, in a feature on television.  Without thinking, he tells his girl-friend that he was abused — she has the wisdom to call in a counsellor who tells Jake that his friend Michael, who had commited suicide a few years earlier, had left a note saying he was abused.

While there are numerous side stories, the second third of the book centres on whether Jake will “disclose” his experience, knowing that that may only start an even more painful process.  How many others, including James, had the same experience?  Will they also disclose?

Alexie resolves these questions in one of the most dramatic pieces of writing that I have ever read.  I can’t remember the last time that a book caused tears to flow down my cheeks; this section did on both the first read and the reread.  The resolution takes place at a community healing ceremony.  The Dream World, the Evil Spirits and the History are every bit as real as the present day experience.  It is an incredible piece of writing.

If this were a conventional novel, the author would quickly tidy up the loose ends in a denoument and close the book.  This is not a conventional novel — Alexie still has 100 pages to go in a 300-page book.

The final third does have more hope than the first two-thirds, but the author is careful to temper it.  Attempts are made to stop drinking.  A revival of traditional ways banned by the authorities, such as drum-dancing and cremating the dead in the Blue Mountains is tentatively tried.  Both James and Jake have women they honestly want to love and they make genuine efforts to try to learn how to do that.  Relocating south to Yellowknife and starting life over is an option, but that too carries risks for someone who has been so grotesquely trained for life.  Alexie’s ending cannot be completely happy, because that would be a total denial of the Canadian Native experience.

Porcupines and China Dolls is not a perfect book.  As noted, those who are not used to the oral tradition will find some of the side trips distracting.  Alexie’s commitment to telling the truthful story makes much of it relentlessly depressing — I’d argue that since we white people sentenced these Natives to live that depression, that is no excuse to not read about it.  I am not a parent but I think this is a book that every reading parent should at least attempt, if only to appreciate how lucky they are that no government or church is taking their child from them.

Porcupines and China Dolls is not a new book — in an ironic way, its history is a reflection of some of the woes Native people face that the book talks about.  It was first published in 2002 by Stoddart Publishing, which went out of business days after and the book dropped from sight (I can find a few used copies on online sites but not many).  Penguin apparently published an edition in 2004 — in a quick search, I can’t even find any used copies of that version.  This edition is published by Theytus Books, a First Nations owned and operated house based in Penticton, B.C. (they do have an American subsidiary, so the book is available across North America).  The proof copy that I read has a 2008 copyright, so I presume Alexie has revised the earlier work — I have no idea how extensive the changes might be.  Whatever he did, the result is one of most impressive books I have read in a long, long time.

This is the first of three related posts. On Monday, I will post a review of Carpentaria, the award-winning Australian novel by Alexis Wright, a member of the Waanyi nation. It is a book that has many similarities in acquainting those of us who are not indigenous people — in either Canada or Australia — with that world. And a week from today, I’ll indulge in some thoughts and examples about some other similarities that can be found in the fiction of these two nations, even if they are geographically a globe apart.



8 Responses to “Porcupines and China Dolls, by Robert Arthur Alexie”

  1. JRSM Says:

    Very interested in hearing about ‘Carpentaria’, which I haven’t yet read. I also like the way ‘Porcupines…’s cover makes no use of any of the usual indigenous lit cliches (no feathers, blankets, headbands, arrows, etc).


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I too could not help but note that the worn out sofa and cheap paneling were far more typical of current Native living conditions than the cliches. It is also giving nothing away to say that the book’s central characters spend a fair bit of time passed out on sofas just like this as well.


  3. David Murdoch Says:

    The catholics had already apologized back in the early 90s to my understanding, although there hadn’t been an official papal apology until yesterday (it was just the particular religious orders who ran the schools that issued their own apologies before).

    I know a Canadian historian who tells me that the stories of sexual abuse and other types of abuse are unfortunately commonly found in residential and industrial school systems across the western world during this time period (ie. it wasn’t just the natives in their schools that had that kind of abuse). What made the first nations residential schools particularly upsetting was the fact is that according to estimates about %50 of the students who attended the schools died at the schools. The reason for their deaths was a widespread outbreak of smallpox and other diseases, which were particularly fatal due to the malnutrition of the students caused by criminally neglectful staff and administration that simply didn’t feed them to the extent that they needed.

    What our country needs most, now that the schools have closed, is forgiveness and reconciliation. People who were responsible and who have something to be guilty for ought to admit their guilt and those who suffered need to forgive them. It is the only way that healing will ever truly be achieved, and what the pope did yesterday was very good on that account. Christ taught us to forgive those who sinned against us, and what He says is the truth.

    God Bless,


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I certainly make no claim to personal expertise on the issue — although my understanding is the same as yours on the distinction between the orders that ran the schools and the Pontiff. This is a work of fiction, not history, and should be regarded as that, however well-informed. I’d also like to underline that for me what was most impressive about the novel is the way that Alexie explores some — just some — of the consequences. I think this novel does contribute to the reconciliation process, particularly in the way that the author grapples with issues in the last 100 pages after the most dramatic part of the book.


  5. Isabel Says:

    A similar thing happened in Australia.

    Not sure whether it also happend in the US. Need to find out.

    Great review! It’s good to know these things.


  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    As I understand it, Australia has a very evocative name for it — they are called the Stolen Generations. I’m not sure about the U.S. since so much of that aspect of history there is dominated by slavery, conflicts with blacks and the Civil War, that Native people and their story seem to fall off the table.


  7. Junior Says:

    Have just been looking around for info about this book, and it is nice to find a good, detailed review. As per the content, it sounds typical of many of my families experiences, and my own. My people are from an area not too far away from where the author is from, and I know we have had the same type of things going on. It will be a good read for sure, though I have the feeling that it might be rather depressing and a bit scary.
    I saw the cover, and laughed immeadiately. As someone who has lived in native communities, nothing says anything more rez than that couch. I have to admit, it seems appropriate.


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Junior: Thanks for bringing this book back to the top of the list.
    While it is both depressing and scary, it is also very hopeful — Alexie does a very good job of balancing those conflicts. And yes, couches do feature in the narrative. I hope you enjoy the book — it certainly was on my shortlist of favorites last year.


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