The cover image on Dawn Dumont’s short story collection, Glass Beads, is an ideal visual metaphor for its content. The high-heeled Chuck Taylor sneakers embroidered with flowers that look like beadwork and a (notably faceless) woman in a First Nations’ jingle dress suggest a contemporary twist on traditional First Nations’ culture, and that’s exactly what Dumont delivers. The book’s twenty-three stories are real, relevant, and riveting, and Saskatoon’s Dumont – an actor, comedian, newspaper columnist, and three-book author – was a “shoe in” to write these often hilarious interconnected stories about urban-Indigenous friends in the ’90s and early 2000s. The tales are so credible-from the diction to the romantic disasters-one can easily believe the author, who hails from Okanese First Nation, is writing exactly what she knows.
This book’s overwhelming success lies in its structure, realism, and its characterizations of four friends whose lives crackle with energy, humour, and heartache. All but a few stories are dated by month and year, from 1993 to 2008, and it’s interesting to watch these characters both grow but also stay true to who they always were.
Nellie Gordon is the responsible one, and the majority of the Saskatoon-based book is told through her perspective. Razor-witted and ambitious, at university she’s on the Native Student Council and earns a law degree. Nellie becomes the brains behind her friend Taz Mosquito’s political aspirations: he expects to become Grand Chief. Taz is a “northerner”: he speaks Cree, is “totally bush,” and has “black-black hair and pale skin like old-timey vampires and a cocky confidence that comes from isolation and not knowing any better.” He also has a severe drinking problem. Pretty and outwardly tough Julie Papequash is an eight-year-old running away from on-reserve foster parents when we first meet her; naïve Julie and confident Nellie become childhood and lifetime friends, though “Envy” was invisible Nellie’s “knee-jerk response to all things Julie”. (When Nellie applies for a waitressing job she tries to curl her hair “to emulate Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct-but every second she stood [there], her hair went from sexy murderer to electrocuted hedgehog”.) Julie hooks up with Taz, and Nellie suffers through the years with Everett Kaiswatim: lackabout, womanizer, and “probably the worst drug dealer the city had ever seen”. Everett moves from the Salvation Army into the home of a man who, two days later, “went over to his ex-girlfriend’s house and shot her”. This information’s revealed so matter-of-factly, it offers readers a sense of how inner city “normalcy” differs greatly from what goes on in the ‘burbs. Nellie joins a group that volunteers in Mexico, and Everett had “always meant to check where Mexico was on the map but never got around to it”. Nellie hopes not to get kidnapped; apart from her Mom, “her family weren’t really the foundation-setting-up type”.
Dumont has an ear for the real. I could hear the characters “ch,” just as I remembered from my youth in Meadow Lake. I howled. I winced. I recognized. Hey, Canada? Please read Dawn Dumont.
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