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Book Review: Faces in the Firelight
Reviewed by George Hedgepeth
Faces in the Firelight is a remarkable book. Both written and wonderfully illustrated by John Payton, it is the fictionalized account of a family of Ojibway people living in the forests between Lake Superior and James Bay. The main story is that of He-Rises, born just before the start of the twentieth century. The book also tells of the youth of Sturgeon Man, He-Risesí grandfather, who went to war against Lakota west of the forested lake country, and Dawn Sailing, who is a Lakota woman captured brutally during this war. It spans the period of time from before the impact of the European settlers had become dominant in these peoplesí daily lives to the 1950ís, when native culture was at low ebb.
It is in no way a "how-to" book, but Payton demonstrates a deep understanding of the technologies required for a small and isolated band of people to survive in the wilderness. It is especially rich in the methods used to provide enough food to keep Pauguk, the death spirit, away during the long winters. From moose hunting in the deep snow and running fish nets under the ice to harvesting wild rice and boiling maple sap in their correct seasons, Faces in the Firelight richly describes the seasonal subsistence strategies Anishnabe people used to stave off hunger.
Above and beyond providing a window into the nomadic culture of boreal forest hunters, Faces in the Firelight is a wonderful read. The story moves along at a quick pace from conflict to conflict. Struggles between people take on a whole new menace when supernatural forces become involved. More powerful a force than sorcerers, spirits, lake monsters, or even winter is change, and it eventually engulfs all the characters in this story.
One more thing I liked about this story is the absolute lack of romanticizing. There are no "noble savages" or supermen. All of these people make mistakes and have triumphs that are all appropriately embedded in their culture. He-Rises struggles against his perceived inadequacies all through his early life, and the respect he earned among his fellow hunters, as well as the vacationing "sports" from the city, was truly earned the hard way.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in native cultures, is fascinated by the great northern forest, or is just looking for a great story. This book was a very satisfying read for me. It kept me entertained and I learned some things as well. Pick up a copy and I believe you will be very pleased.
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