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.
Above, l. to r., authors Wayne K. Spear, Constance Brissenden, and Larry Loyie, and Jeff Burnham, President, GoodMinds & Indigenous Education Press
Here’s an excerpt from the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Winter 2015 edition of Book News (page 38). The author of this review is Karri Yano, a Toronto writer and editor.
The material presented is a balance of historical facts and personal experiences. While thorough in its overview—timeline, politics behind the events (racist attitudes in society and politics)—it is not explicit in the details of the neglect and abuse, but specific facts and personal testimonies reveal the deplorable conditions the children who were taken away and living far from any family support had to endure while also demonstrating the incredible resilience of the survivors and what they did to cope.
The book is suitable / appropriate for student 12 and up as a resource for one period of Canadian history that reveals the struggles of Aboriginal people to self-identify and their fight for equal rights and survival as a culture in Canada.
The book has been featured recently in the Edmonton Journal and Brantford Expositor. Paula Kirman, writing for iheartedmonton.org, says “Residential Schools is an excellent introduction to this tragic subject, and will certainly have a place in classrooms around the province.”
You can order the book by phone from my Brantford, Ontario publisher, Goodminds, 1 (877) 862-8483 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
MONEY. Paul McCartney says it can’t buy him love, but Paul McCartney complaining about not being able to buy love is like Paris Hilton lamenting that she can’t smooth-talk her way into a West Hollywood restaurant. And my point here is: where do I sign up to have Paris Hilton problems? Just point me to the office and I’ll be on my way, and thanks.
“WRITING A BOOK,” according to George Orwell, “is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness.” The good news is that the illness ends after two or three years, or five at the most. When you start to feel better, it’s time to start a new book.
My friends and co-authors, Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden, discuss residential schools and the forthcoming book Residential School: A Children’s History on CBC Radio.
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SOME YEARS AGO I had the good fortune and pleasure to befriend the wonderful Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden. Larry is a Cree author and playwright from Slave Lake in Alberta. Constance is a freelance writer, author and editor who I first encountered when she was writing for Macleans in its glory days, under the capable editorship of Peter C. Newman, in the 1980s. Larry and Constance met in a writing class in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side and within a few years had formed the Living Traditions Writers Group.