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Clifford by Harold R. Johnson

Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw

Taking indigenous writing to another level, Saskatchewan author Harold R. Johnson proffers a world where science meshes with traditional teachings and fantasy flirts with the mundane.

Johnson honours in his part memoir, part thought experience Clifford, the influence of his older brother on his life. His brother, Clifford, who died in the 1980s, possessed an extraordinary mind, melding science, philosophy and indigenous knowledge to develop his theories of the universe. The story of these two brothers takes us to the backwoods of northern Saskatchewan where the Johnson family, like many indigenous families, is forced to leave a life of self-sufficiency through trapping, hunting and homestead farming for employment but more often unemployment and welfare in the surrounding white towns. Readers are exposed to the poverty, alcoholism and violence experienced by the Johnson boys, but for the most part, it is the author's message of unshakeable family bonds that stands out.

The story starts with powerful imagery. Ray, the younger brother and author/narrator, returns to the tar-papered shack, that was once his childhood home on the north end of Montreal Lake. In the living room stands a three-legged chair, the fourth broken and missing. Readers are left to ponder the metaphorical significance of the damaged chair until the end of the novel when the author divulges his intended symbolism. The image held my imagination fast as I read on, and evoked metaphors different than the author's later revealed intent. At first, I saw in the chair the imperfect life of Clifford, who aspired to be a scientist but was forced to eke out a living as a small electronic appliances repairman. Clifford certainly had the wit, intellect, self-learning to realize his dream, but stability eluded him and alcohol undermined his prospects.

My imagination then drifted to a second interpretation: perhaps, Clifford as the three-legged chair was really just a metaphor within a metaphor, like the Ukrainian dolls that the prairies are so famous for. Could the inner doll be the woodland Cree, his mother's people, whose ingenuity allowed them to thrive in the harsh conditions of Saskatchewan's north only to see their resilience and independence undermined by the encroachment of white settlement? Whatever the case, Johnson's story brims with indigeneity in a way that is novel and distinct from the writing of most contemporary native writers. There is no rage, no sense of victimization. Instead, Johnson invites the reader into his world of bonding with the land and dealing with the sharp edges of material poverty; a world where emotional wealth and ingenuity of spirit leave us spell-bounded, sitting on three-legged chairs, which defy gravity.

Johnson certainly does not need to earn my accolades here. A Governor General finalist, an author of four works of fiction and two of non-fiction, he is also an accomplished jurist and graduate of the Harvard Law School. And these accomplishments from a man, born of a Swedish immigrant father and a Cree mother in the remote community of Molasa, North Saskatchewan. But I will offer them nonetheless because like the first line in the penultimate chapter of Johnson's cathartic journey of remembrance, the “sorrow [of his writing] pulls at me.”

Clifford is published by House of Anansi.

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