I learned today that my friend and co-author, Larry Loyie, is gone.
Larry’s Cree name was Young Man. It was fitting. He had a gentle, even light spirit, despite all he’d been through. Somehow he never lost touch with the character of childhood. I won’t say innocence: there was little of that for children like Larry. In residential school, he dreamed of being an author, but his education at St. Bernard Mission was cold and meagre. He was in his 50s when he went back to school to fulfill his life’s purpose. And fulfill it he did.
Larry developed a simple yet powerful voice. He had an ability to communicate with readers of all ages, but especially with the young. Along with his writing partner, Constance Brissenden, he published books about his youth before and during residential school, reaching thousands of readers across Canada and beyond.
His love for his culture was with him throughout his life, as was his love for writing and for teaching the young. Gentle and honest, compassionate and warm, Larry’s work reflects the respect that he had for his readers, whatever their age. He had a few guiding principles: always tell the truth, make sure the writing is interesting, and inform the reader.
Larry was soft-spoken. He could summon a mental picture with great economy. He felt no need to hit anyone over the head with his message, and so he never did. His prose is disarmingly open, and anyone who follows him in the work of writing about residential schools is well-advised to study his example. He’s given us a wealth of books, and if you haven’t read them I encourage you to do so.
He loved baseball, and we enjoyed going to the stadium together. Connie and I would talk shop, and he’d hush us. “I’m here to watch the game,” he’d say. He’d go from funny to serious in a beat, hitting just the right note in each register. A few times I got a glimpse of the darker stuff, when he’d talk about picking potatoes and chopping firewood. He wanted so badly to read and to learn, and the residential school system denied him. To the school he was a source of cheap, forced labour, nothing more. It could be hard to reconcile this with the gentle, funny guy sitting behind home plate. Why wasn’t he angry all the time? I know survivors who are. It’s a mystery to me, and I guess it always will be a mystery.
Larry left us peacefully. He has done what he came to do. I miss him, and I’m sad he’s gone, but I know if he were here he’d have none of that. Not for Larry, the long-drawn face and the dirge. “Cheer up, young man, and keep going,” he’d say. For you, Young Man, I will. For you.