Kiss of the Fur Queen, Cree playwright/pianist Tomson Highway’s debut novel, is the story of champion dog-sled racer Abraham Okimasis and his sons Jeremiah, a pianist, and Gabriel, a dancer. As the brothers journey from northern Manitoba to residential school and then to Winnipeg, a mysterious trickster figure – the Fur Queen – plays witness to their lives. The resulting story is about sibling rivalry and sibling love, and the effects of re-education and religious conversion on one family’s existence.
In Cree cosmology, children choose their parents. Highway’s depiction of the brothers’ trapline births are among the most haunting and evocative pieces of writing to ever appear in Canadian literature. The playful yet hallowed tone of these early passages is pure magic.
It is impossible to dislike a book that brings a reader to tears (twice) by page 33. That said, Kiss of the Fur Queen is not perfect. Inexplicably, the brothers’ characters stop developing about halfway through the novel. And the women are one-dimensional, assigned to roles as mother or clown or tough girl or victim, but never a realistic combination thereof. The considerable strengths of this novel do prevail, however. Highway’s descriptions of life on the land are poignant, and he illustrates clearly the duelling centrality of good and bad “medicine” to aboriginal existence.
Kiss of the Fur Queen is not as uproariously funny as Highway’s plays. The story is inspired by the author’s relationship with his late brother, the dancer Rene Highway, and the sadness is palpable. Yet the novel remains, at its core, a celebration of survival and of life lived: its 49 chapters allude to the aboriginal “forty-niner,” or celebratory song cycle. It is, as well, a reflection on one Cree man’s struggle to understand his place within two worlds. As Jeremiah says, “How, for God’s sake, [does] one say ‘concert pianist’ in Cree?” The answer lies, perhaps, in creating a new language.