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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Reviews Archive: "Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul" by David Adams Richards - A Must-Read for All Canadians

5 Stars

On a Mi'Kmaq reserve on the Miramichi, in 1985, seventeen-year-old Hector Penniac is killed while helping load pulpwood into the hull of a ship. Although there is no physical evidence indicating his guilt, blame soon falls on Roger Savage, a white man who lives on the border of the reserve.

Amos Paul, the 75-year-old chief, fears that Savage is being scapegoated by being seen as the incarnation of centuries of wrongs committed by whites. The chief, the voice of reason, strives for truth and peace, but many of the younger people view Amos' conciliatory approach as obsolete and favour a more confrontational style which demands immediate retribution. They attempt to remove Savage from his home; the crisis gathers force, and tragedy ensues.

Twenty years later, the chief's grandson, Markus Paul, who is an RCMP officer, sets out to unravel the mystery of Hector's death and to answer some questions surrounding subsequent events on the reserve. On the one hand, therefore, the book can be read as a mystery, but it is much, much more than that.

The author scours the community and examines the motives of everyone affected by Hector's death. No one escapes unscathed. Corruption and weakness are exposed everywhere. Markus observes, "Yes . . . we all have one [cheatin' heart]" (267).

One theme is people's "willingness to forego a certain integrity in order to belong to a group" (49). Chief Amos, the moral centre of the novel, explains people's behaviour with an analogy: "'There is always a big hidden giant in the room, and this giant attaches itself to people in a crowd, and moves them in one direction or another. Those who do not join this giant are outcast, and sometimes will get stepped on by great big feet. Those who join the giant have the benefit of puffing themselves up and acting like one, and sometimes do the stepping - until their friends leave and then they just get smaller and smaller. And sometimes after it is all over, they simply disappear'" (105). These words prove to be prophetic: many people, including the journalist Max Doran who covers the crisis, fall prey to this giant.

The author examines the lingering consequences of Canada's mistreatment of aboriginal people, and there is no doubt of his sympathy for First Nations people. However, he bravely suggests, as Rayyan Al-Shawaf summarized in The Globe and Mail, that "Legitimate historical grievances cannot justify the pernicious notion of inherited guilt. . . . attempting to redress sins of the past sometimes leads to victimizing innocent descendants of the sinners."

This is a book that all Canadians, both indigenous and non-indigenous, should read.

(from July 2010)