2009 Review: Motorcycles and Sweetgrass

Trickster plays with small-town minds in Otter Lake

Book Review
By Christine McFarlane
Motorcycles and Sweetgrass
Author: Drew Hayden Taylor

Award-winning playwright, columnist and comedy-sketch creator, Drew Hayden Taylor from Curve Lake First Nation, Ont., is at his fast-paced, comedic best with his latest book

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass, which is set in the fictional sleepy Anishnawbe community of Otter Lake.

The premise addresses many issues that First Nations people currently deal with, including community politics, identity, mythology and intergenerational legacies—the impact of children removed from their communities to attend residential school, and the problems that caused, including alcoholism, lost retention of traditional ways, repressed memories of long ago hurts, and rifts in familial relations. Throw in a few Windigos and a new government granted land parcel for the band that unleashes a swarm of local lobbyists with competing schemes for development and you’ve got the makings of a funny and compelling story by Hayden Taylor.

The reader is allowed into the life of Maggie Second as she tries to juggle several roles, including motherhood and the stresses that come with being in a very public role as chief, a position she inherited after the sudden loss of her husband in a boating accident.

Maggie finds that the issues she often deals with in her political life drift into her personal life. She is distracted by the demands of her job and the impending loss of her mother and a wayward son Virgil, who tends to skip more school than he attends.

Maggie also finds that the paperwork involved with the newly-acquired land parcel is more of a hassle than it should be. She has to deal with “three levels of government, four, if you included the reserve, that has to sign off on the transfer. She finds that most non-Natives believe the idea of granting the band more land is an absurd concept. After all, “five hundred years of colonization had told them you took the land away from Native people, you didn’t let them buy it back.”

The stage is set as Maggie’s focus shifts when a six-foot-plus dreamboat riding a 1953 humdinger of an Indian motorcycle arrives in the community. The motorcycle rider is possibly the mischief-making incarnation of the Ojibwa’s trickster figure Nanabush, and the town of Otter Lake turns upside with a silliness that they have never experienced before.

No one really seems to know what’s going on except for the raccoons that track this bike around like a posse, and they’re not happy.

Taylor writes this book with comedic ease, but he pokes at some very serious issues, such as language. In one scene, Maggie Second and her dying mother are speaking in their native Ojibway and the book reads “she spoke it like all the old-timers did, with strength and confidence, not hesitantly and softly like the youngsters who took the language in university, if they took it at all.”

Hayden Taylor’s book generates much thought about small-town small-mindedness, and he mixes it with the problems brought by a trickster figure let loose in a community already preoccupied with fooling itself.

The book’s real strength is the underlying account of a community struggling to weave a traditional past with some kind of meaningful future. In these matters Taylor’s humour yields to a tone that is variously caustic and melancholy.

Hayden Taylor’s Motorcycles and Sweetgrass was the Governor General’s Award nomination for fiction in 2010.
It is published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, and can be purchased at your nearest bookstore.