Reading Seven Fallen Feathers was tough. Not only because it engages with the history and present of colonialism and genocide, or because of its methodical attention to the ways the Canadian state continues to underfund education on reserves in ways that replicate structures of residential schools (isolation from family and community), but because it drove home for me how completely I’ve been avoiding doing any of the work of reconciliation I need to be doing.
I’ve long thought “oh I should read the compete text of the TRC report” or “I should find out more about rates of I incarceration of indigenous people,” or or and or. And I haven’t. Not for a good reason and certainly for bad reasons: I’ve thought it wasn’t my responsibility. Or not my priority. Or that I’d missed an earlier opportunity and now it was too late and – and I’m ashamed to say this – that I was too proud to admit how very much I don’t know. Like I wanted people to think I was suitably progressive and to say all the right things and be a good lefty social justice human without doing any of the work to actually live those ideals out.
Reading this book hasn’t changed much of this feeling. It does offer an impressively comprehensive and synthesized consideration of the intersections of many threads: missing and murdered indigenous women, the Indian Act, residential schools, treaty rights and intergenerational trauma. And I have some greater understanding as a consequence, but for me what it did best was to call me in to the living present of colonialism and my contribuatory role. Of not letting me get away with shifting responsibility or pretending not to know (or care).
So yeah. I have some work to do. And if you’re reading this with any resonance with my feelings pre-reading, I can’t urge you with enough pep to read this one.
There are many things to fear. We are taught and reminded and encouraged to fear what we don’t know, who we don’t know and to never ask questions about the things about which we are told to be afraid. The things we should be afraid of – car accidents and sitting at desks – are trumped (or are Trump) by hyperbolic headlines of xenophobia and a capitalist impulse to make us buy our way out of anxiety. Michael Christie’s excellent, If I Fall, if I die (which until now I remembered as ‘If I Fall, I die’ – a telling slip of my memory) asks us to reconsider how we come to be afraid and the bravery of encountering those fears (and what motivates us to do so: loyalty, love, stubbornness).
Our story follows Will (a clever naming as so much of the character is about choice, what he will do and what he wills himself to do) and his mother, who experiences agoraphobia, along with many other and cascading fears, to a degree that she raises Will within her childhood home in Thunder Bay. The plot takes off when, in the first chapter, Will finds himself Outside and begins realizing the way his mother has constructed their world as one filled with fear bears little relationship to the reality of what is, or should be, threatening.
The novel’s exploration of the way fear is made (rather than natural or inherent) is fascinating. In one scene Will is attacked by a wolf (for real) and because his sense of what should be frightening has been so skewed he doesn’t seem to realize that a wolf. attack. is the sort of thing one really ought to get a raised heart rate about. The novel takes on questions of the social construction of fear in little ways (why are we expected to fear teenagers on skateboards?) to big fear (the circulating anxieties about race, poverty and mental illness that have material and ideological consequences for those we make objects of fear and those who fear them). It is a sophisticated at yet propulsive exploration of the emotion/state of fear.
It is also decidedly Canadian literature in its setting and theme (*cough* Survival!). Thunder Bay and the politics (of fear) around indigenous land claims and resource extraction are at once particular to the setting, but made wider points of consideration in the exploration of how such fear is created and perpetrated by state officials (the police and schools, in particular) and economic/social policies. The first few chapters had the feel of a somewhat over-workshopped first novel with abundant similes and hamfisted diction, but either Christie eased up, or I got used to the style and stopped be distracted by the writing (I might even go so far as to say I found some sentences well observed. Might).
All this to say you’d do well to pick this one up. I suspect Chapters will put it on Heather’s list, or someone will put it on your Books to Read This Summer because it’s hard to not enjoy the story (the characters are loveable and peculiar in ways that make them objects of fascination: how unusual! agoraphobia!). I’d urge you to look past what could be construed as a plot gimmick, to see that the book is about a whole lot more.