Fiction Review by Jocelyn Dimm

Adam Garnet Jones, Fire Song (Toronto: Annick, 2018). Paperbound, 232 pp., $12.95.

Fire SongIn this young-adult novel adapted from his 2015 award-winning feature film, Adam Garnet Jones creates for his readers a darkly realistic portrayal of life on an Anishinaabe reserve in rural Ontario. Through a collection of the characters’ tangled lives, the pivotal voice being that of seventeen-year-old, Shane, Jones offers an honest, however bleak, picture of everyday existence on the rez, drawing the reader into the fragile ways people try to cope in impossible situations.

It is Shane who takes the reader on this haunting journey. In the opening pages, Shane is immersed in the wake of the devastating suicide of his younger sister, Destiny, as he tries to understand why he didn’t know she was so desperate, and why she never came to him for help. As Shane struggles with his sister’s death and watches his mother’s grief push her into a withdrawal from the entire community, he does a “Drift” through the circumstances and places in his life that are closing in on him. Within the Drift experience, Shane’s thoughts travel through the tragedies that are all around him, from inadequate housing on the reserve (even his own home’s roof is falling in), drug and alcohol abuse (his friend Kyle and Kyle’s Aunt Debbie), sexual abuse (his girlfriend Tara), mental and physical abuse (his Uncle Pete), to mismanaged funding for post-secondary education (his own college fees), and a lack of band employment opportunities (his inability to find a job and stay at home). More deeply rooted in his emotional world and his Drift are Shane’s thoughts and feelings about the blend of Christian beliefs with Indigenous ways of knowing. Both are practised by Elders on the reserve, and are part of his family’s ways, yet present a constant struggle for him, as he grapples with something even more important to him, the secret love he harbours for his best friend, David.

Shane’s world is a complicated mess, with tragedy and anguish at every turn. The only faint hope is Shane’s dream to attend college in Toronto and leave all the despair behind. The only person he wants to take with him is David, yet Shane’s greatest obstacle of all is David’s spirituality; his “medicine man” ties him to the tribe’s ancient ways and beliefs. With that bond, comes David’s refusal to announce his love for Shane, and leave the reserve with him. Within his crumbling world, heightened by his sister’s suicide, his mother’s depression, and David’s reluctance to go public with their “two-spirited” relationship, Shane makes more than a few terrible choices. Needing money for college, he takes a job dealing for the local drug dealer. Spurned by David, he tries to turn the relationship with Tara into more than it is. Shane asks Tara to move to Toronto with him, knowing she is desperate to get away from an abusive father and life on the rez, but knowing he doesn’t really want Tara. Choices always come with consequences, and Shane faces his own as he once again tries to change David’s mind. When Tara discovers the two young men making love, it leads to yet another tragedy on the reserve.

It might be difficult, at this point in the narrative, for the reader who wants to understand the oppressive, real-life circumstances that Jones highlights, to read past the almost dismissive tone of the second suicide, and the somewhat unlikely events of Shane and David’s revenge on the drug dealer. Some readers might question the short, choppy, last four chapters of the novel that, ironically, come up with a rather contrasting and somewhat unexpected happy ending. This purposeful, spiritualistic conclusion creates a feel-good context in which magical things happen, but is this conclusion going to make sense? Will readers now look back on the rest of the novel, and discover that most of the straight men were angry and violent, and the Indigenous teenage girls were either jealous and ambivalent or heartbroken and suicidal? Is the happy ending something that Jones felt he owed his readers? Would it have made more sense if Shane and David had disappeared into the night and the reader was left wondering if the boys made it to Toronto, wondering if Shane’s dreams ever came true?

There is nothing superficial about Adam Garnet Jones’s writing, however; his words are rich and full, creating vivid images and presenting raw, sensitive emotions that will give any reader insight into the struggles of young Indigenous people trying to survive and move forward with their lives. Jones’s story offers plenty to think about and work through, if readers stay with him until the conclusion. Readers uncertain about those final chapters of Fire Song can perhaps tell themselves that those heart-warming, last events of the novel must have played out well on the big screen.


—Jocelyn Dimm

As in The Malahat Review, 205, Winter 2018