I read Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway last semester for an English course focusing on First Nations fiction. I also wrote my term paper for the course on the novel, exploring how redemptive arts expression can be for emotional trauma. Unfortunately, I am finding it difficult to write a review for the blog having studied it so closely for class, my term paper, and the final exam.
The official blurb from the publisher focuses more on the mysticism of the story and Cree culture. But I found the story to be enjoyable, linear, and compelling. Both brothers were compassionate, intriguing, and unique. The story is loosely based on Tomson Highway’s own experiences in residential school with his brother, Rene Highway.
Born into a magical Cree world in snowy northern Manitoba, Champion and Ooneemeetoo Okimasis are all too soon torn from their family and thrust into the hostile world of a Catholic residential school. Their language is forbidden, their names are changed to Jeremiah and Gabriel, and both boys are abused by priests.
As young men, estranged from their own people and alienated from the culture imposed upon them, the Okimasis brothers fight to survive. Wherever they go, the Fur Queen–a wily, shape-shifting trickster–watches over them with a protective eye. For Jeremiah and Gabriel are destined to be artists. Through music and dance they soar.
From the publisher, Random House of Canada
The prose is quiet and beautiful, the story is emotional and powerful. But as a very literal person, I had trouble following the Cree cosmology. We did discuss some of it in class—particularly the Trickster—which I found very interesting and helpful in understanding the backstory. However, some readers may find this a difficult thing to get past, trying to explain the “why” in the interactions with the Fur Queen or Maggie Sees.
As Jeremiah and Gabriel grow up, the narrative careens … between moments of magic and myth (surrounding the trickster figure) and moments of hard-to-bear realism (rooted in racism, first in the residential school system and after they travel south). Some of the elements will be familiar to readers of native fiction (the tension between tradition and assimilation, the tragic cycle of abuse and alcoholism, misunderstandings between generations and between city- and reserve-dwellers). Secrets are at the heart of many stories.
[From the book review at Buried In Print]
Tomson Highway is one of the first Aboriginal playwrights to gain prominence in the Canadian theatre community. Highway is now a well-known Cree author and Kiss of the Fur Queen was his first novel.