Manitoba History: Review: Richard Wagamese, Keeper’n Me
by Agnes Grant
Richard Wagamese has become known to Canadian readers through his popular columns in the Calgary Herald. This first novel is a welcome addition to the field of Native literature; readers familiar with Wagamese’s columns are not disappointed. Those who are unfamiliar with his writing will enjoy this exposure to a new and promising Canadian novelist.
The story “bears some resemblance” (book cover) to Wagamese’s life; it presents the experiences of many Native people whose families were separated by the “baby-snatching” of mainstream social services which followed the residential school debacle. It is the story of Garnet Raven who was taken from his home when he was three. Forced to relocate due to hydro development, his parents moved to town. Garnet explains,
The children were lured into the social workers’ car with chocolates while the granny was in the back yard. It was not until noon the next day that the frantic family found out what had happened to their children.
The children were kept together for a year and then Garnet was separated from his siblings. His life story is a familiar onea series of foster homes, escape and aimless searching, surviving as best he could and eventually becoming adept at street life. In Toronto he met a black family and learned for the first time the strength and support a family can provide. However, he also learned the drug trade and by age twenty he was in jail.
His family located him in jail and the book is about his quest as he searches for his Indian identity. He rejoins his family and learns how to be an Ojibway. Keeper’n Me is basically a warm, happy story showing that family and elders are waiting to teach and heal those who have been denied knowledge of their heritage. The most significant person in Garnet’s life, except for his mother, is Keeper, a one-time protege of Garnet’s grandfather. Keeper, too, is seeking healing since he did not avail himself of the teaching offered him in his younger years. He is given a second chance when he helps his mentor’s grandson.
This book is a significant contribution to Canadian literature as it presents a segment of Canadian society which historically has been largely ignored, unduly romanticized, or appropriated by non-Native writers. Maria Campbell has stated that writers from outside the culture come from only “half a place.”  Wagamese comes from the “whole” place as he fictionalizes a common experience and presents Ojibway culture from the point of view of someone who is trying to regain his rightful place within the culture.
As a stranger to reserve life, Garnet Raven had much to learn. The story of his orientation to the culture is told with great integrity and humour. As might be expected, Garnet laughs at himself and his own foibles. When he arrives at the reserve he is out to impress the country yokels with his city smarts. When he arrives people are “gawking like crazy” (31). This should come as no surprise since he is wearing mirrored shades, an Afro “all picked about three feet around my head,” a balloon-sleeved yellow silk shirt, lime green baggy pants with little cuffs, hippy platform shoes with silver spangles, and three gold chains around his neck. He says,
One relative wonders if he had been adopted by Liberace, another comments that he smells so strongly fruit flies should be buzzing around his head, and a third warns against the danger of playing with electricity. Keeper concludes,
Customs and practices of reserve life are woven into the story artfully. The most significant teachings come from Keeper. This book is unique in that one of the recurring themes is that of gender balance, both within the culture and within each human being. Garnet first hears of the spiritual, mental, emotional and philosophical equality that characterized his parent’s union. Later, Keeper elaborates on the term Soo-wanee-quay, meaning “power of the woman.” He says,
This book is an invaluable source for those seeking to understand and rectify the devastating consequences of a patriarchal society run amok. Because of Christianity, residential schools and the Indian Act, Indian men have been coerced into functioning in ways which violate their traditional teachings. The power given the men by the invading culture created disharmony and loss. Regaining the balance which once made Native cultures the most egalitarian in history is a slow and painful process. Among his many teachings about respect, honour, sharing, kindness and love, Keeper emphasizes the importance of this balance. It is obviously important to Wagamese, the writer, as it recurs in various forms in the novel.
Five years after his return to the reserve, Garnet Raven reflects on his life.
Garnet is prepared to take his rightful place in the culture as he recognizes his role as a teller of stories about both traditional values and contemporary life.
In this respect, the story also bears resemblance to Wagamese’s life. Readers are privileged to read his story; hopefully there are many more to come.
Page revised: 26 September 2012Back to top of page