Monday, March 9, 2009

Reading for Pleasure -- Richard Wagamese's Ragged Company


Today I was gifted with the mixed blessing of a March snow day. While this admittedly makes life a bit tougher in terms of getting 'round, and while it means we'll be trudging through a sloggy mess for a few days, it also meant that I had a day at home to catch up on my reading. Here's the view I enjoyed from my big leather club chair: I love the way the late-afteroon sun is hitting the snow on my neighbour's cottage roof.
What I'm catching up on is the next novel my 4th-year Urban Canadian Fiction class will be reading, Stephen Henighan's The Streets of Winter, set in late-1980s Montreal -- more on that later. For now, I have to catch up on my writing about my reading! I haven't mentioned here yet that my one other stubbornness over Reading Break, besides the Michael Connelly mystery, was Richard Wagamese's Ragged Company. I knew Wagamese's ability to tell painful truths with humour through his earlier work, Keeper'n Me, which I've taught as an example of First Nations literature. I also knew he could create likeable, convincing, and compelling characters as in that earlier work's Keeper, particularly. Wagamese, an Ojibway, entertains and delights while he educates his readers subtly about the sad history of Canada's colonization and its continuing effects on First Nations people.
In Ragged Company, Wagamese tells a marvellous story about four chronically homeless people who begin visiting movie theatres together as a way to escape the dangerous cold of an Arctic front, but who quickly become hooked on the magic of film and the stories it tells. A chance encounter with another film enthusiast, also enamoured of celluloid's possibilities for escape, turns into their bridge to the world of Square Johns. When one of the homeless four miraculously finds a winning lottery ticket, they turn to this Square John, ex-journalist Granite, for help negotiating the new terrain they suddenly occupy. Whle the story is obviously contrived and unlikely, in Wagamese's hands it becomes an absolutely-engaging exploration of the meaning of home and of the possibilities for community, connection, and reconciliation as well as a cry for recognition of the humanity in each of us. Toward the end, it veered toward the Hollywood-ish, perhaps, but I nonetheless savoured every page and cheered every resolution. Wagamese's autobiographical writings suggests that he learned about life on the streets firsthand -- he gives voice to those we usually manage to ignore, and he helps us learn about a part of our community who deserve representation. If you get a chance, pick this one up!

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