When we look back at our ancestors, we often look at their belongings but do we really consider their thoughts, wishes and emotions. Theresa Kishkan has those of us who read her book doing that in Sisters of Grass.
I hear the stories coming down from the high plateau, attended by coyotes and burrowing owls, the tiny swift shape of a bat. One might be her story, Margaret Stuart of Nicola Lake, a gathering of small details that might make up a life. Weathers, generations of insects to riddle the fenceposts, a watch of muslin from a favourite gown. The grasses are beautiful in moonlight – pinegrass, timbergrass, brome grass, giant rye. And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Kishkan has crafted two stories together linking them to a piece of land and a small wooden box of items. We have Anna – a curator of a small museum in our time – and we have Margaret Stuart – the original owner of the box who was living back in the 1900s. Kishkan has connected the stories together with well-thought out words that deserved to be savoured.
In a hankerchief edged with fraying lace, the smell of lavender. A few brittle seeds caught in the threads. I rub them between my fingers and am taken back to my own grandmother’s house in Halifax, where hedges of the grey-leaved plants lined paths and where bundles of their dry flowers kept the rigid piles of ironed sheets fresh. Gifts sent from that coast arrived with sachets tucked into pyjama pockets or wrapped in an apron constructed of scraps of polished cotton and lengths of crocheted lace, the bittersweet odour rising from the box as it was opened. And this box, too, has its incense, a prelude to the rituals of discovery and accompaniment.
The air of the valley’s history is rich with the smoke of artemesias burned to clean and protect, clouds of tobacco smoke bringing the souls back from the dead. And the smell of evergreens laid about to protect against witchcraft, illness, the tips rubbed on the bodies of girls to keep away evil. The rising of durst as graves are swept with the branches of wild roses. When we make our campfire, I burn a branch of sage for my own safe passage through this world of ghosts, my hands rich with the oil of lavender, Margaret’s little bag of earth.
Kishkan has mixed many great elements to come up with this great read. It is a coming-of-age novel mixed with reflections on the land. The past is intertwined with the present throughout the narrative. Native cultures mix with European settlers. Urban and rural ideas cross each other. And young and old often talk and learn from each other. In short, this is a book that causes readers to contemplate not only their own lives but the lives of their own ancestors.
Margaret was quiet, thinking of the girl beneath the ground on the ridge above Lauder’s Creek. Not lying on her back, as though sleeping, but with her knees drawn up to her chin, bound there with bark twine. Had the girl seen the coyote pups leaping and rolling in the dry grass when they first left the den, did she watch the eagles on Hamilton Mountain before it was called that and wonder how it must feel to hang in the air so high and still, did she bury her face in blossoming sage, sneezing ash she inhaled the tiny flies that sucked at the nectar? Most of all, was she related to Margaret, through blood down all the generations? And was she afraid to die and leave the world? The Indians at Douglas Lake had believed that the souls lived in a western world, underground. Now that most of them were Christians, it was heaven where the soul went, taken upward on wings, as though by eagles. But Grandmother Jackson still read the stars like an old storybook, saying, “We think those stars as the children of Black Bear, and we call that grey trail, the tracks of the dead.” When Margaret visited, they’d stand outside the cabin after dark to listen for loons, and Grandmother pointed out the stories of the tribe written across they sky. The moon and his sister, shadows and smoke, the dog following the cluster of stars that William called the Pleiades. When the two women, young and old, stood in the darkness, Margaret thought that she never wanted to leave. she wanted to learn to make baskets and medicines and stay in her grandmother’s house forever. Yet it was not quite home.
Theresa Kishkan has mixed a great number of elements together to come up with Sisters of Grass. It is a well-crafted novel that deserves careful consideration while reading it.