by Deborah Rogers –
Permanent Astonishment is Tomson Highway’s first installment of a planned five-volume memoir series. It covers his early years, from birth in sub-Artic Canada to age 15. Highway is a concert pianist, a playwright and a novelist; he’s the speaker of many languages, and today splits his life between Canada and Italy, with long periods elsewhere in between. His life is so different than that of his parents and it’s that traditional lifestyle that the book explores and presents so vividly.
Highway is an effervescent writer: his love of language and playfulness sparkle in every sentence. As a child, he and his family spoke Cree, but in Northern Manitoba many spoke Dene. The two are totally different, and through the early part of the book there’s a focus on the naming of people and places in these two distinct languages. Of course, there was also English, the settler language which would become part of their vocabulary too. The mixing of the three makes for dense reading which our group found both delightful and challenging.
The life Highway lived with his family was harsh and beautiful. The book really stands as a testament to his parents’ love for each other and for their family. The second youngest of 12, Highway shares the magic of dogsledding, hunting and fishing – living from the land and the resources available. Many of his siblings died in childhood and he describes the way he and his younger brother René were raised “like little Northern Princes.”
Highway’s father’s desire for his children to be educated, and have the opportunity to live a better, safer life, meant that at only six Highway was sent off on a plane to the only school available – Guy Hill Residential School. For our readers it was difficult to process some parts of the book. Highway focuses on the positive of every moment. His astonishment is a sort of delight in the world so that even when he’s describing being bullied, or some of the disturbing incidents at school, he places them within the context of the life he’s subsequently lived, and expresses gratitude.
Permanent Astonishment provoked a long, wide-ranging discussion at our meeting. It stands as quite a contrast to other books detailing the Indigenous experience in Canada during the 1950s and 60s. Many of us had read and watched interviews with Highway to help understand the book better. It was a great choice for the last meeting of the year.
Book Club will resume in January – watch out for information about what we’re reading next in our January issue, or sign up for emails: www.seasidemagazine.ca/book-club/.