Friday, November 19, 2021

The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour

 

The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour / Dawn Dumont
Calgary: Freehand Books, c2021
304 p.

I've been looking forward to this novel by the very funny and sharp Saskatchewan writer, Dawn Dumont. I read it as soon as it was released, and loved it. It's a return to the zany caper energy of her earlier Rose's Run, a novel I also greatly enjoyed. 

This story is set in the 70s, and it follows a ragtag group who heads to Europe to fulfill a dance tour commitment, when the real dance troupe comes down with food poisoning just before they are about to leave. John Greyeyes, retired cowboy and brother of the band chief, is arm-twisted into running this makeshift tour. He's in charge of two female dancers -- Edna, a middle aged woman with arthritis, and Desiree, her niece -- and Lucas Pretends Eagle, an American who is supposed to be a star dancer. John has to shepherd them to Europe, keep on their itinerary, teach Edna and Desiree to dance in the meantime, and get them all home again, on just a few hundred bucks upfront. Just a tiny challenge. 

There are shenanigans right from the start. From their flight to Europe which does not go as planned, to their performances at the Indigenous World Gathering and on into Germany and Italy, John is performing damage control. And it's Edna, who is keeping a journal of their trip which appears at the beginning of each chapter, who becomes the surprise star of the story (at least for me!) 

Dumont takes on many serious issues in this novel -- from misogyny, racism, the fetishization of "Indians" by Germans in particular and Europeans more widely, residential school effects, religion, and sexual orientation, to the way society turns Indigenous people against themselves, and questions of ownership of Indigenous artefacts and culture. But the book is also hilarious. In one unexpected turn after another, something nutty is happening. Beyond the plot devices, there are also sly digs at every stereotype you can think of, and Edna in particular has the same habit of sarcastic commentary as Rose did in the earlier novel mentioned above. I laughed out loud in parts, and thought the characters were engaging even while being embroiled in slightly ridiculous events. 

But there are also serious bits, and parts where you just feel for the characters, each suffering their own secret difficulties. Edna is in constant pain from arthritis but is also deeply religious due to her residential school upbringing, which is a dissonance in her life. John, a handsome loner, finds a connection with Per Ollman, their Swedish guide to the Indigenous World Gathering in Kiruna, Sweden. He is startled by his reactions to Per, and by Per's matter-of-fact recognition that they are both gay. John struggles with this but by the end of the book he's starting to accept this new understanding of himself. 

I really enjoyed the writing style, and the mix of serious and silly in the book. It was fun, entertaining, enlightening, and has a great cast of characters. Definitely one to draw out lots of discussion and opinion, and one which engages the reader and zips by. If you enjoy Thomas King or Drew Hayden Taylor's sharply humorous novels, I think you might really like this one too. 

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