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Starlight by Richard Wagamese

While the dark history of Canada’s residential schools has shocked many people this year, it has also drawn attention to our need to tell this side of Canada’s story. History is made of facts, but those facts can be manipulated by the person sharing them to spin a story in a certain way. And so many of us may have never heard certain facts about our history. One antidote to this is to read more widely, not just nonfiction but also fiction. Canada boasts numerous talented Indigenous writers who have put pen to paper to tell their story. One such author is Richard Wagamese.

This summer when we camped in Wells Gray, we stopped at the Visitor’s Centre. While the kids stared down the stuffed wolverine, I browed the bookshelves. Amidst the books on local flowers and animals, a novel caught my eyes: Starlight by Richard Wagamese. I picked it up, along with a picture book of First Nations stories for the kids. This fall, I finally had a chance to sit down and start reading Starlight, and once I started, I didn’t want to stop. Wagamese is an engaging, lyrical author who brings the land and characters alive for his readers.

Starlight by Richard Wagamese

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Trigger warning: while most of the abuse happens before the opening of this novel, there are a few violent scenes and memories shared of past abuse. If you have experienced abuse or domestic violence, some chapters may be difficult for you.

Starlight by Richard Wagamese: a plot summary

Frank Starlight grew up in the small town of Endako, BC. He almost left after the old man’s death, but something drew him back to the farm. Now, with hired worker Eugene Roth, he keeps the farm going. In his spare time, he heads into the bush with his camera and captures photographs of local wildlife. His friend Deacon recognizes the talent in these photos and begins selling them for Starlight.

Emmy grew up without a home, and now as an adult, bounces from one relationship to another. After three years of putting up with Cadotte’s abuse, she’s ready to run. With her daughter, she packs some food and supplies for the road. When Cadotte discovers her leaving, she and Winnie have to fight their way out. Driven by fear and desperation, they make their way along the highways of BC, looking for a safe place to hide from Cadotte.

They end up in Endako, squatting in an abandoned house. When Emmy can’t find a job, she turns to shoplifting and gets caught. She’s headed for jail and Winnie for foster care when Starlight steps in with an unusual offer. He’ll provide them with room and wages in exchange for cooking and housekeeping. The woman and girl move in with the two bachelors on the farm, and Emmy sets to work cooking and cleaning like a pro.

With the help of the local social worker, Starlight soon recognizes that Emmy and Winnie need more than just food and a bed. In them, he recognizes the wildness he’s seen in an unbroken horse. And so, despite the gossip spreading in the small town about an Indian man taking in a white woman and her daughter, he starts to pass on the wisdom he learned from his old man. He teaches Emmy and Winnie to ride a horse, to walk in the wilderness without making a sound, to find their way, to live off the land.

“Home,” Starlight said. “Comes to be a truth you carry in your bones. Figure if I can help someone find that, I’m doing a good thing.”

My thoughts on Starlight

Starlight was a novel I wanted to read slowly, to ponder the language and deep descriptions and Starlight’s laconic wisdom. It was also a book I wanted to read as fast as possible, to find out what happens to Emmy and Winnie and if Cadotte ever finds them and if they really find a home and a place to belong. There were so many things I loved about this novel, from its setting in small-town BC to each of the real, gritty characters and their struggles to the simple, practical wisdom within its pages.

Starlight has a deep, unique connection with the land on which he lives. It is this connection to the land that gives him his quiet strength and the deep wonder found in his photographs. And when he meets Emmy and Winnie, Starlights recognizes that this connection to the land is what they are lacking—and that the land can facilitate their healing.

As he tells the social worker, “Everything is predictable out there. Natural. Always seemed to be that the best place to learn about trust was out there. You learn to trust it and you learn to trust yourself framed against it. You can move easy out there knowin’ your place. Respect comes outta that. So does courage. Humility. Even a rough kinda wisdom. Faith maybe. But I know you come to love it.”

While I’ve only ridden a horse a handful of times, and I’ve never fished for my own supper before cooking it, I identified with Starlight’s lessons for Emmy and Winnie. I grew up hiking and camping in the Rocky Mountains with my family. I’ve walked over long trails, spend days in the wilderness where few others have walked, slept outdoors. On the West Coast Trail and on so many other overnight hikes, I’ve felt that quiet, trusting peace that Starlight embodies and slowly shows to Emmy and Winnie. The land has in many ways been mother and teacher to Starlight, and he shares that freely with Emmy and Winnie.

I also enjoyed seeing the relationship between Starlight and Emmy grow throughout the novel. Neither of them had a good childhood, and they still carry those wounds and scars with them. Starlight was blessed to have a man step in as a father-figure to him, who provided him with a home and taught him about the land. In many ways, Starlight has found healing and, as someone further along the journey towards wholeness, he shares what he’s learned with Emmy. Slowly, each of them opens up to the other about their past pains and choices. Starlight tells Emmy,

I used to fight when I was a kid. Every day almost. Schoolyard scraps, neighbourhood beefs; hell, I even got into it at Sunday school. They told the old man I was too much of a handful. They said I was wild. But I was just a kid. A kid who never knew where he come from. Who his folks were. Where he belonged. Why he was brown an’ the others were white. That’s what all the fights were about. Feelin’ lost and not knowin’ why. I carried that around a long time an’ I never told no one until I told the old man finally. That’s when he brung me out here an’ taught me how to touch the deer.”

Several times in the novel, Starlight’s First Nations heritage comes up. Several times it’s suggested that he knows the land so well or can get as close to animals as he does because he’s an Indian. Starlight brushes those suggestions aside, saying he wasn’t raised as an Indian. He simply is who he is, and thanks to the old man’s love and the lessons from the land, he doesn’t care what other people think of him. At the end of the book, Deacon tells him that no other Native photographer is as well-known as he is. Starlight responds,

“Me bein’ Indian’s got nothing to do with this. I do what I do because I love it. Old man woulda said that love ain’t got no colour or no skin. I pretty much lean into that.”

Deacon nodded solemnly. “There’s those who will want to put that label on you nonetheless. Native. Photographer. Just so you know that.”

You take the label off a can of beans you still got a can of beans. Seems to me the label don’t matter much at all. What counts is what’s inside. Another thing the old man said one time.”

At first, Starlight is criticized for helping a woman who was caught shoplifting. Later, he’s praised for what he’s done for Emmy and Winnie. To both praise and criticism, Starlight responds, “I’ll help anyone anywhere needs a hand if I can do it at all.” If we all had that attitude, of being willing to reach out to someone else despite what our neighbors or family members would thing, our world would be a much more amazing place.

Domestic Violence in Fiction

In Starlight, Richard Wagamese raises the issue of domestic violence and what can be done to help those suffering from it. Emmy has faced abuse for most of her life, first from her father and then from others in her life, and has come to expect it. It is her love for Winnie that finally drives her to break free from that abuse and try to make a better life for herself and her daughter. Yet without help, she would have ended up in jail and Winnie in foster care and the cycle would have likely continued. One person willing to trust her and give her a chance stopped that cycle.

While the novel focuses on Starlight and Emmy, there’s a small thread following Cadotte as he tries to find Emmy and get revenge. This is the other side of domestic violence—that even when women are able to get out of an abusive situation, their abuser may stalk them and subject them to post-separation abuse. Starlight was unfinished when Wagamese passed away in 2017. It ends just as the paths of all four characters converge in Vancouver. In an afterword, the editors outline Wagamese’s plans for ending the novel on a happy note, giving Emmy the justice and closure she deserves. That’s possible in fiction; unfortunately, that’s not always the case in real life.

Stats Canada reported, “There were over 99,000 victims of intimate partner violence aged 15 to 89 in Canada in 2018, representing about one-third (30%) of all victims of police-reported violent crime. Almost four-fifths of victims of intimate partner violence were women (79%).” Stats Can also notes that family violence is underreported; there are stigmas associated with domestic abuse and many women are ignored when they try to disclose what is happening behind closed doors. Women who want to get out of an abusive situation may also have no resources to do so, no family members to help them, no Frank Starlight figure to step in and help break the cycle of abuse and facilitate their journey to healing.

Starlight is, overall, a story of hope and healing. And as we face big issues in our society, whether those issues are around past abuses such as the residential schools or ongoing abuses such as that faced by some women and children today, fiction can help us see these problems and consider solutions. As Frank Starlight shows, one person can make a big difference in another person’s life.

More about Richard Wagamese

Indigenous author Richard Wagamese was a guest lecturer at UVic in 2011.

Richard Wagamese is an Ojibwe author and journalist who was born in Ontario in 1955. His parents were both residential school survivors, and he and his siblings were removed from their home in what was known as the Sixties Scoop. He grew up in various foster homes around Ontario, never belonging anywhere. He became a high school dropout who lived on the streets and hung out in libraries, reading everything he could. He struggled with alcohol, drugs, and PTSD from his childhood abuse. He spent time in jail and lived all over Canada, working countless jobs such as tree planting, farming, dishwashing, and more.

Finally, in 1979, Wagamese got a job as a reporter for an Indigenous newspaper in Regina. Over the next decade, he also worked in radio and television, and wrote a popular Indigenous affairs column for the Calgary Herald. He was the first Indigenous writer to win a National Magazine Award for his column. In 1994, he published his first novel, Keeper n’ Me, which won the Writer’s Guild of Alberta award for best novel. He went on to write eight more novels, a book of poetry, and five works of nonfiction. His novel Indian Horse was adapted into a film in 2017.

Richard Wagamese also served as a guest lecturer at various universities, including the University of Victoria. He taught there in the spring of 2011, as the Department of Writing’s fourth annual Harvey S. Southam lecturer. I believe I took a class there with him or attended one of his lectures. At the time, as mom with two young kids desperately trying to keep up with my weekly reading and writing assignments, I didn’t have time to pick up his books. This photo of him in his black hat brought back memories of him walking into a lecture hall wearing that very hat.

“The boundaries and perceived limits of your world change when you stop and talk to another human being. When you exchange stories—where you came from, how you got there, how your life is going—the addition of that one story to your reality changes your world.” ~ Richard Wagamese

Richard Wagamese passed away in his home in Kamloops in 2017. He was only 61. He left one unfinished novel—Starlight—which was published posthumously in 2018. The editors included notes about the ending, from conversations with his good friends, as well as two brief excerpts from other works, which shed light on the novel.

An article on the UVic blog begins, “Richard Wagamese believes in changing the world, one story at a time.” Having read just one of his stories, I believe this. If you haven’t yet read a Wagamese novel, please head out to your nearest library or bookstore and do so.

Have you read any of Richard Wagamese’s writing? Which would you recommend?

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