‘Celia’s Song’ by Lee Maracle

Book Reviews

Celia's Song coverReviewed by Lynne C. Martin

Reading Lee Maracle’s Celia’s Song feels like the best breathing I’ve ever done. It’s like finding an unlikely friend who truly recognizes me. Our cultural contexts and economic privileges are very different; our spiritual heritages (though not our instincts) are often diametrically opposed. Yet she struggles with the same feelings of loss and responsibility, the same burden of mysticism, the same silencing and eventual rediscovery of her voice that define me as a woman and an artist. Readers from any culture living with one foot in the material world and the other in the world of unseen spirit can find themselves in Celia.

A Sto:lo woman living on a reserve on the west coast of British Columbia, she is a reluctant visionary, called to see and speak truths she would rather not. “‘I’m delusional,’ she complains out loud. The delusions convinced her family and her fellow villagers that she was half-crazed; even in her own mind they mark her as odd.” But the story’s narrator, a mink watching from the edges, affirms Celia’s visions: “I know she’s a seer. Few people actually believe in seers, but I am mink—the shape-shifter, the people’s primary witness. I know things others don’t.” As the story unfolds, mink imparts his knowledge to Celia and to her nephew Jacob, and together they eventually use this wisdom to heal their community.

The story opens with mink watching an abandoned, collapsed longhouse. The spirit guardian of the house, a two-headed serpent trapped in its stone carving, frees itself and roams the countryside, causing chaos or insight depending on which head has the power at that moment, with one head devouring human spirits that have lost their connection to their true selves. This is the evil that drives the events of the story, even though only a few characters are aware of it.

Maracle includes a funny chapter in which a group of white marine biologists see a mysterious shadow on a film—the serpent. Their argument about what it could be reflects the limitations of Western empirical thought: “The possible reality of a sea creature challenges Thomas’s sense of self; it’s an affront to his education.” Another scientist, Sam Johnson (think the eighteenth century philosopher) argues for more unbiased inquiry: “We aren’t the only people who know things,” whereas mink focuses on Sam’s own blindness: “People aren’t the only beings who know things. I am standing right outside the window… but these guys don’t see or hear me.” Though these men appear nowhere else, their discussion loosens our tightly held Western notions of reality, allowing Maracle’s/Celia’s worldview to gain ascendancy. In fact, Celia’s Song is an extended meditation on the nature of knowledge and truth.

At one point, Celia takes her nephew Jacob to visit Alice, whose relationship to Celia is never made clear. Alice writes “poetries” which have the same transformative effect on Celia and Jacob as this book does on me. For Jacob,

the poem settles into the room. … It creeps under his skin and smokes its way to his bones, his flesh, his mind, and opens doors to sky, to being, to home and sound.

Yes. I found myself resisting the left-brain thinking needed for reviewing this novel. I didn’t want the distance required to comment on it; I just wanted to let it creep under my skin.

Up to this point the novel moved slowly, almost dreamlike in its poetic cadences. Though there were warnings of horrors to come, each episode seemed disconnected, like Celia’s visions. Then Jacob sees the sickening vision of a little girl being terribly abused, and the episodes begin to gather speed and to connect. At times I was confused by this unfamiliar structure, especially by the lack of clarity about family relationships. Also, the simultaneous layering of different times and the interaction of the dead with the living at first disturbed my Western sense of chronology; I lost track of what happened when to whom, and could hang onto only the emotional immediacy of details. Yet since this is how grief and memory work, eventually I relinquished my need to understand logically.

I also dreaded the story’s gathering darkness, but as Celia’s family pulls together to save the little girl and her mother, compassion and hope bloom into a deeply satisfying resolution. Furthermore, Maracle lovingly includes whites as Celia’s family members and acknowledges the humanity of even the worst abuser (who is Sto:lo)— Jacob and Celia’s way of holding him to account at the end is ultimately merciful. Thus, both the content and structure of Celia’s Song transcend my limited worldview and expand my experience of humanity. As mink says, “The stories that really need to be told are those that shake the very soul of you.”

Cormorant | 280 pages | $24.00 | paper | ISBN # 978-1770864160

One Comment

  1. Posted January 12, 2015 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Thank you for describing Celia’s book in way that I believe honours her story. It is indeed a walk with one foot in each world. Truly an example of the courage and steadfastness of opening ones heart and how to do our best to live there.

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Lynne Carol Martin

When she’s not writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry and plays, Lynne Carol Martin tutors at Red River College and teaches English for Business and IT Professionals at the University of Winnipeg. She also runs a business called Clear Voice Enterprises, helping students and professionals hone their communication skills. Her monologue Good Enough was performed at Sarasvàti’s International Women’s Week Cabaret of Monologues in March 2016.