“Never again would wolf women serve men in quite the same way again.” (Maracle 2)
Lee Maracle’s newly-revived novel, Ravensong, is a quiet but powerful recollection of the sociopolitical impact epidemic has on marginalized communities. Originally written by Maracle in three days, Ravensong was rejected by publishers, swamped out of print by the release of the high-fantasy works popular at the time, and forgotten by the general public for the better part of a decade. Despite its single-handed defeat by Harry Potter, Ravensong was brought back by dedicated fans who continued to push for its re-publication, feeling the necessity of using the written word to express forgotten voices. Much like its history, Ravensong tells a story of resilience, despair, and finding hope when confronted with impossibility.
The novel is a coming-of-age story where Stacey, Maracle’s protagonist, struggles to secure a future for herself against the social hierarchy of 1950’s Vancouver. Stacey’s unnamed Indigenous community is isolated and scarred from the repeated experiences of epidemic; the word, as Stacey notes, holds a meaning within the community as something more than a simple disease. Epidemic, to Stacey, means the loss of family, disruption of the everyday, and a historical reminder that the government in power places the value of Indigenous lives below that of white settler Canadians. Epidemic is what holds the Indigenous community in place, self-continuing their own oppression as reminders of the numerous historical plights keep them from making contact with the outside world, or, as Maracle puts it, creating a “gulf of difference too deep to cross” (Maracle 78).
The symbolic gulf of difference is the main source of significance in Stacey’s narrative. The only person in her community who continues to make contact with the white neighbourhood across the river, Stacey is exposed to the difference in perspectives — and the casual discrimination that perpetrates views of Indigenous peoples today — as she befriends Carol, a Catholic girl who shames her own mother for getting a divorce, and takes a somewhat-romantic interest in Steve, the well-meaning but ultimately ignorant son of a successful white doctor. What makes Maracle’s writing so powerful is her unapologetic analysis of the ways, both intentionally and not, how Canadian society continues to ignore Indigenous suffering. When Stacey’s community is hit by the Hong Kong pandemic, Stacey watches elders, newborns, and her own father die to the epidemic without outside medical aid. Soon after, she is invited to Carol’s house, where Carol’s father laments the pandemic’s impact only in terms of economic loss, as his company suffers under the number of employees falling ill. Stacey comes to realise, then, that the white neighbourhood is completely oblivious to the suffering of the minority community beside them, even as she watches her mother and aunts work day and night in their efforts to heal their friends and family.
The treatment of the Indigenous community by the white neighbourhood is what ultimately steels Stacey’s resolve as she graduates highschool and decides to leave her community to study at a familiar place: the University of British Columbia, in hopes of returning with education and outside knowledge to help her people. There is a hint of traditional storytelling, or what literary scholars would consider magical realism in Maracle’s novel; Raven, a prominent figure in Indigenous storytelling, watches Stacey’s progress with careful eyes, powerless as Stacey continues to ignore her influence in her attempts to reconcile the two sides. The harbinger of change, Raven gradually seeps into Stacey’s everyday life until the impact of the epidemic — something that Raven deems necessary to drive the Indigenous community from their stalemate — creates an awakening inside of Stacey. In one of the book’s most famous lines, Raven, witnessing Stacey’s despair at losing her father and many of the members of her community, states: “Death is transformative.” (Maracle 73)
The transformative power of death intertwined with the passing innocence of a traditional coming-of-age in Ravensong places the experiences of living through pandemic directly in conversation with Canada’s oft-ignored history of mass repression of its minority communities. Epidemic becomes a centrefold stage where biological tragedy meets political malpractice, in how the idea of disease can have vastly different meanings and impacts depending on one’s geopolitical state. Though the novel recounts a fictional experience some 70 years ago, it echoes discussions of politics and epidemic in discourse today, including today’s ongoing epidemic.
The 2019-2020 COVID-19 pandemic has halted life as we know it. Though quarantine is starting to feel somewhat normal in the sixth, seventh, or eighth month into a forced stay-at-home, much remains to be said about the handling of this biological, political, revolutionary terror that has impacted the socioeconomic world globally and provincially, cross-country and within households. The spread of COVID-19 in the Indigenous community has been described as “alarming” (CBC), and in response, Yukon authors have published letters to the government suggesting that Indigenous principles and knowledge should be considered when formulating a Canada-wide, or even global, recovery from the pandemic. The actions of the Yukon authors reflect Maracle’s sentiments written in Ravensong’sfictional, long-ago recount of an epidemic: that there is a necessity of communication and compromise in the face of hardship among Maracle’s white neighbourhoods and unnamed communities in Canada today. Through literature, an understanding of differing perspectives and histories of suffering are understood and reflected through metaphor and symbolism. We gain an appreciation of the ways novels can be used to heal from the impacts of epidemic, beyond the pure biological or simply scientific understanding of what it means to recover. Perhaps, then, that same sentiment is what drove devoted fans of Maracle’s to strive for a re-publishing of Ravensong — a process of healing through destruction, Raven’s transformation of death into inspiration.
CBC Indigenous. “COVID-19 in Indigenous Communities: ‘Alarming Rise’ in New and Active Cases.” CBCNews, CBC/Radio Canada, 7 Oct. 2020, www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/indigenous-covid-19-update-1.5752343.
Maracle, Lee. Ravensong: a Novel. Women’s Press, 2017.