When the Spirits Dance by Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden

Award-winning First Nations author Larry Loyie shares the drama of his childhood during the Second World War years. As a young Cree boy, Lawrence struggles to grow up while wrestling with the meaning of war. When army runaways threaten his family, he must call on his skills and the teachings of hie elders to keep them safe.

When the Spirits Dance is an unusual book in many ways. It is remarkably resistant to being pinned down into any of the usual marketing categories. It’s a picturebook, for one, but with long pages of text; the type is large enough to be friendly to new readers, yet the pages are so text-heavy they would (might) intimidate that same demographic. The story itself is an autobiography of a distinct portion of Loyie’s childhood (or biography, when you consider Brissenden is co-author) complete with photos of Loyie’s immediate and extended family and the environment in which they lived.

(I loved the photos – close-ups of birches in spring, even a shot of the northern lights as seen looking directly up, as well as photos of, say, the model of radio Loyie’s mother listens to the news on. The inclusion of the whole environment, trees as well as household appliances, is a very Indigenous way of viewing the world: humans not separate from nature; nature and modern technology not necessarily separate and opposite things.)

So the narrative is a retelling, as if in fiction, of eight-year-old Lawrence (Loyie)’s experiences when his father was called away to war in 1941, and his mother continued to raise him and his sisters under the restrictions of rations and the dangers of deserters. The story (and I’m so sorry for making this comparison) is in some ways like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, with a child focal character presented in the context of their family and their family’s struggles in a particular place and time, and the perspectives and worldview of that family very present. Other (non-family) characters pass in and out of the narrative, as they enter and exit the life of the child. It makes for a fairly direct narrative voice that, despite its seeming plainness, conveys a great deal of nuance, including the unspoken norms and expectations between people and of the world.

It’s beautiful.

If you like stories about ordinary life, stories about extraordinary life and times, family stories, nature/outdoors stories, historical (non)fiction (or nonfiction that reads as smooth as fiction), #ownvoices Indigenous stories, bildungsromans/coming-of-age stories, and/or Canadian fiction, here’s one for you.