Book Review: A Quality of Light

A Quality of Light by Richard Wagamese | Penguin Random House Canada

The late author Richard Wagamese lived a life shaped by tragedy, but baseball, literature, and story-telling helped him to deal with the trials of his early years.  A Quality of Light, his second novel, is a semi-biographical tale of friendship, faith, and baseball.

In his 2008 memoir, Wagamese wrote:

   Stories are meant to heal.  That’s what my people say, and it’s what I believe. Culling these stories has taken me a long way down the healing path from the trauma I carried.

 

Before we go much further, a personal disclaimer.  I have what I call a fractional amount of First Nations ancestry.  I know very little about it – it’s not something that my father’s side of the family has ever openly discussed.  And while I was raised in mainstream white, English Canadian society, I’ve always felt a nagging:  why don’t I know more about it?  Why was it something that seemed more like an embarrassment for my extended family?  Is my own love of nature, the outdoors, and concern for the environment an offshoot of my slim native heritage?  Unfortunately, with the passage of time, I’ll probably never know.  But I feel a kinship – however slight it might be – with aboriginal people in this country, and it pained me to see the reactions from many Canadians during the recent Trans Mountain protest blockades (doesn’t that all seem like a long time ago?).

 

The first home Wagamese ever knew was an army tent.  My wife grew up as an RCAF brat in Sioux Lookout, ON, and from the stories she has told of First Nations people in that town, this was not at all unusual, unfortunately.  One day, Wagamese’s parents were out on the trapline, and he and his older brother and sister ran out of food and firewood.  The older siblings dragged three year old Richard and his young brother across a frozen lake to a railroad depot.  From there, Wagamese was sent to a residential school and when he was nine to a devout white Presbyterian family in Ontario to live.  He didn’t see his parents again until his mid 20s.  Homeless and living on the streets of St Catharines, ON, at the age of 16, he followed a group of people into what he thought was a homeless shelter, but was a library.  The move literally saved his life.  Wagamese fell in love with the written word, which set him on a path that saw him become a journalist and author.

 

The narrator of A Quality of Light is Joshua, a ten year old Ojibway boy adopted by white, devout Christian parents who take him far from his birthplace to raise him in rural Grey County, in the heart of Southern Ontario farmland (as one born and raised next door in Simcoe County, the places and landscape Wagamese describes are very familiar to me).  His childhood is idyllic, as he helps his parents farm their 300+ acres, with the occasional fishing trip to nearby Hockley Valley with his dad.  He becomes best of friends with fellow ten year old Johnny Gebhardt, who shares a love of reading with Josh.  Johnny’s alcoholic father has returned to his native Mildmay to help his father run his hardware store, but Johnny’s upbringing is very opposite to Josh’s.  The two boys were completely and utterly embarrassed one day when forced to take part in a school baseball game; they vowed never to return to the field until they mastered the game.  Johnny signed out every book on baseball in the local library that he could find, and slowly the pair developed from error-prone newbies to competent players.  They practised behind Josh’s dad’s tool shed; in contrast to Wagamese’s own strict childhood, Josh’s benevolent parents appear not to take notice of the strike zone the two have whitewashed on the back of the shed.

An incident a few years later when both boys were in high school served both to strengthen their bond, but also planted the seeds that would see them take alternate paths as they travelled the road to adulthood.  Johnny became increasingly fascinated with First Nations culture, and chided Joshua for not knowing enough about his own.  As the years pass, Johnny becomes increasingly militant and assumes a warrior persona, while the contemplative Josh ultimately heads for bible college, and a career as a pastor.  Josh was able to learn something of his heritage through an elder at a nearby reserve, and finds comfort in being able to keep a foot in both his native and white worlds.

Even though A Quality of Light was written over twenty years ago, it remains relevant in Canada, especially given the TMX protests that gripped the country earlier this winter (for American readers, you can find a good summary here).  The issues of pipelines, Alberta oil, and First Nations land claims is a complex one in this country, and while things are quiet in the current Covid-19 crisis, this will continue to be a concern in Canada.

A Quality of Light is a story that is about much more than baseball, although it has the game at its heart.  Wagamese’s dialogue is somewhat stilted at times, but he spins a masterful story about friendship, loyalty, trust, and self-discovery.  For those seeking to learn and understand more about aboriginal issues in this country, it’s a good place to start.

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