Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dream Wheels

Dream Wheels / Richard Wagamese
Toronto: Doubleday, c2006.
398 p.

I picked up this book as part of my challenge to myself to read more Canadian books written by men. I have a tendency to prefer women's writing overall, but have been finding some intriguing books now that I am consciously selecting things I might not usually pick up. I would certainly not have automatically thought of picking up a modern Western full of cowboys and rodeos.

This book is set in Western Canada -- it is deliberately vague in setting, it could be a ranch in Alberta or in Montana, there are no specific towns or locations to tie it to. Despite that, it has a strong sense of place. The landscape, the work they do, the trails they ride and mountains that surround them are everpresent.

The story focuses on Joe Willie Wolfchild, a rodeo bull rider and as they say, a true Indian Cowboy. He is at the point of winning a ride that will make him a major champion, when there is an incident. He is thrown, in an ugly way, and instantly loses all chance of ever riding again. He is taken back to his ranch by his family - his parents and grandparents - to recover physically and emotionally.

Into this set-up comes Aidan, a troubled teen from the city. Aidan is half-Black, and has been in prison on robbery charges for the last couple of years. He and his fragile mother are being sent to the ranch on his release as part of a rehabilitation scheme for him.

Two angry young men, an epic landscape, and nurturing mother figures... macho bull riding juxtaposed with the healing power of family and landscape. It has all the elements of a somewhat clichéd tale, but rises above that. The emotions are real for Joe Willie and for Aidan, and they come to a grudging respect for one another. The writing itself is flowing, poetic even when it describes the sweat and pain of bull riding. The ranch seems like an island of beauty and relief from a troubling world; it deals in the natural world and its inhabitants - bears and other wildlife - rather than the people in the mean streets of the city.

There are many topics that interweave in this novel: Native identity, family, belonging, purpose. The title refers to something that Joe Willie's grandmother Victoria says at a bonfire they are having one night. Joe Willie has been fixing up an old, vintage truck in the shed as a kind of occupational therapy, and he and his father had briefly referred to it as dream wheels, a truck that had held and carried all their dreams over the years coming and going to various rodeos. Victoria starts to talk about Dream Wheels at this bonfire, and is asked to explain. She begins:

"I'm talking about the stories of the lives of a people. Doesn't have to be a nation. Can be a family or a town, a valley like this or a broken-down old truck like that old girl out there," she said. "A dream wheel is the sum total of a peoples' story. All its dreams, all its visions, all its experiences gathered together. Looped together. Woven together in a big wheel of dreaming... The fire was the keeper of the dream wheel. When people gathered around it, the stories came. Even way back when, people were charmed by fire, stared into it like you are now, somehow feeling like it could conjure something, take them somewhere -- and truth is, it could. When the stories started they were transported, lifted up and out of their lives and their fears of the night and taken on dream journeys."

Overall I was glad I picked it up. It was different from anything I've read lately, and gave me another way of seeing life. There were some issues I had with it, specifically the beatific presentation of the women in it, at least the women in the Wolfchild family (Joe Willie's long time girlfriend, a blonde ditz, dumps him once he is physically injured and unable to be a champion any longer, which is rather abrupt and unexplored). And I did find the characters to nearly all speak in the same way, making it a bit difficult to ascertain who was speaking at times.

But it did inspire me to seek out Richard Wagamese's blog, A Writer's World, which is full of beautifully written thoughts on his life. And because I was thinking about him and his work, I also came across a very recent presentation called Smoked Fish, Bannock and Indian Tea he gave at Royal Roads University in B.C. -- it is online presently and if you want to hear him talking about the importance of storytelling and community, check out their site.

This is a book that will appeal to many different ages and kinds of readers, I think, and thanks to reading it I might just pick up another of his books -- especially since I have a copy of Ragged Company on my shelves. He is a prolific author with more books coming out this year so I will have many titles to choose from.

This brief bio is taken from Richard Wagamese's blog, A Writer's World. His blog is full of thoughtful and beautifully written posts on varied subjects of importance to him, and is very worth reading:
I am the author of seven titles with major Canadian publishers. I am also a Native American or, as we say in Canada, a First Nations person from the Ojibwa nation. My home territory is a place called Wabaseemoong in NW Ontario on the Winnipeg River near the Manitoba border.... In 2011 I will publish four titles in four separate genres. My new memoir, One Story, One Song arrives in February and then in the fall, my new novel, Indian Horse will be followed by my first collection of poetry, Runaway Dreams, and my literacy improvement novel in Orca Press’ Rapid Reads series, The Next Sure Thing.

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