By Maurice Switzer
Some people have twinkling eyes. Basil Johnston could write with twinkling words.
Those of us who were privileged to meet the legendary Anishinaabe author in person can almost hear his restrained giggle as we breeze through the 34 stories included in the last of his 24 books, “Candies (a humour composite)”, published by Kegedonce Press three months after the master Cape Croker storyteller passed into the Spirit World.
The title of his final book is derived from the opening story, about how Santa’s helper mesmerized Cape Croker kids by telling them he picked the candies in his Christmas satchel off trees in California.
“He had brought us the finest and most lasting of gifts,” recalls Basil, “laughter and memories, and mixed candy trees.”
The stories vary in length. There’s a half-pager that reads like a joke from a standup comedian’s routine, about the Anishinabe who responds to an Ape Man roaring “MEE TARZAN!” by bellowing “MEE GWETCH!”
And there are laugh-out-loud longer yarns like “Cowboys and Indians”, the hilarious romp about a flustered movie producer who ends up paying for riding lessons for Indian extras to add authenticity to his shoot-em-up Western.
For residents of the Chippewas of Nawash, this collection represents a scrapbook of local names and anecdotes, but its appeal is universal. It laughs with Indians, not at them.
It’s perhaps fitting that Johnston’s publishing legacy is capped off by stories designed to make readers smile. There could not be a more resonating testament than “Candies” to the resilience of Indian Residential School survivors.
I can still remember the jolt I felt when I heard Basil tell an Anishinabek governance conference about being raped at Spanish, which was called St. Peter Clavier’s during his first five years there, and Garnier during a later three-year stay.
But what really hit home was when he revealed that he felt unable to share his dark secret with his beloved wife Lucie until they had been together almost 40 years.
Fortunately for the thousands who have turned the pages of his volumes on Anishinaabe history, sacred teachings and life experiences, Basil always found topics he was comfortable writing about, and tales he could spin that could bring us wonderment and laughter.
The finest and most lasting of gifts.
Candies (a humour composite) by Basil Johnston; Kegedonce Press (2015); 194 pages, softcover; ISBN-13: 978-1-928120-03-2; $18.00
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He lives in North Bay where he operates Nimkii Communications, a public education practice with a focus on the Treaty relationship.