Masked and Changed

A review of Richard Wagamese’s Him Standing (Raven Books, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Him Standing courtesy of Orcabook.com

Cover photo of Him Standing courtesy of Orcabook.com

Lucas Smoke learned the art of carving from his grandfather and finds that his hands seem to move of their own volition to carve figures that he sees in everyday life…. but when he learned the art of carving, his grandfather didn’t teach him the deeper meanings behind his craft, the knowledge that would keep him safe from exploitation.

When Lucas’ grandfather dies, his family wars over the man’s possessions leaving Lucas feeling uncomfortable since all he wanted was his grandfather, not his possessions. Lucas leaves the reserve and decides to busk in the city, using his gifts at carving to make some money by carving images of tourists on the boardwalk. When he is approached by a man who offers him a substantial amount of money to carve masks as his grandfather does, Lucas can’t pass up the opportunity to get himself out of a situation of poverty and agrees. He quickly learns that he is being exploited and that his mask carving, meant to “bring a legend to life” is bringing something into the world that he would rather not invite.

Wagamese explores the experience of urban aboriginal youth feeling conflicted about their relationship to history and home. Lucas is tempted by the views into his people’s past that making his mask and entering into the dreaming place provides. There is something alluring for him about seeing his community before European settlement and he feels as though he has connected with some lost part of himself. Lucas feels fragmented, like parts of his own puzzle have been missing. Even his art, although providing a link to his grandfather, feels incomplete, as though some of the most important teachings are missing – as though he has learned the physical acts of carving but not the deeper spiritual meanings or teachings that should have accompanied it. This sense of incompleteness has left him vulnerable to manipulation by white men who want power and are willing to use him to fulfill their own selfish ends. The loss of teachings and ways of understanding create vulnerabilities for others to exploit – skill without cultural understanding is incomplete.

Lucas is asked to venture into dreams to carve what he sees and unintentionally connects with an ancient evil that seeks to use him to return to the physical world. Like an addict, he becomes obsessed with dreams, losing track of time, not eating, not sleeping, and being consumed from within. His feeling of incompleteness means that he seeks to fill himself with things that are external to him, trying to attain some sense of selfhood while actually leaving him open to be possessed by an ancient evil.

Wagamese looks at the interconnection between story-telling and carving, the ability to make tales into physical things, revealing truths within objects. He examines the power of art and stories to re-shape the world, to bring legends into the living world and change our understanding of the places we dwell in.

To read more about Him Standing visit the Orca Book Publishers’ webpage at http://www.orcabook.com/productdetails.cfm?PC=1865

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