Jeremiah Camp is on a mission. He’s pulling up crosses in the graveyard at a former residential school, replacing them with rocks, and chiseling children’s names into the stone. Not everyone in the nearby town agrees with his actions. This does not faze him. Camp is the main character in Guelph writer Thomas King’s new novel Sufferance, and not much seems to faze him, although it’s a little hard to tell since he doesn’t talk.
This grumpy but loveable character might seem rather familiar If you’re a fan of Thomas King’s work. Despite his decision not to talk, Camp is an integral part of his community, which comprises the town of Gleaming and the neighbouring Cradle River First Nation where he was born. People flag him down on the street for “conversations,” some of them apparently oblivious to his lack of response. Perhaps Camp is reminding us that actions speak louder than words.
Readers gradually learn that Camp had a troubled childhood, and a mysterious past in the corporate world. Crows, ghosts, a young girl and a stray cat follow him around. As do characters from that corporate past, who drive expensive vehicles and whisk him off in helicopters for missions of their own.
King has a knack for slipping serious issues into engaging character studies and what might seem to be light-hearted plots (at least at first). In Sufferance, he juxtaposes the ultra rich and the homeless, the shocking and the mundane. His accounts of rampant corruption and injustice are regularly interspersed with mouth-watering descriptions of moist brownies, crisp grapes and perfectly poured macchiatos.
King wrote Sufferance before recent reports of the discovery of the remains of 215 children who attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School. This heart-wrenching news makes his startlingly matter-of-fact tale of children starving to death at the hands of the church all the more appalling. He describes the failures and frustrations of reserve housing – in this case mould-infested trailers cut off from town electricity and water – through comically quirky characters and their creative attempts to get action from corrupt and inept government officials.
King is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter and photographer, of Cherokee and Greek ancestry. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Guelph. Although the fictional town of Gleaming is clearly not Guelph, you can still play “spot the Guelph references” in Sufferance. His 2020 novel Indians on Vacation, about a couple from Guelph on a trip to Prague, won the 2021 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. Indians on Vacation and Sufferance are both published by Harper Collins and you can find them at the Bookshelf in Guelph.
For me, Sufferance is a brilliant example of the way art can draw us in, open our eyes, and encourage conversation around difficult topics. If you want to add to your understanding of First Nations issues in an accessible, humorous, and wise way you can’t go wrong with Thomas King.
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