I read Drew Hayden Taylor’s Motorcycles and Sweetgrass only about a few years ago when it first came out, and usually I don’t reread too many books so close after reading them for the first time. This is one of those exceptions.
Hayden Taylor’s story begins “Somewhere out there, on a Reserve that is closer than you think but still a bit too far to walk to, lived a young Ojibway boy. Though this is not his story, he is part of it. As all good tales do, this one begins far in the past, but not so far back that you would have forgotten about it.” And it ends with the lines, “And that’s how it happened to a cousin of mine. I told you it was a long story. They’re the best ‘cause you can wrap one around you like a nice warm blanket.”
In between, Motorcycles and Sweetgrass tells the story of the Benojee clan who live on the Otter Lake Reserve (where protagonist Tiffany Hunter lives in Hayden Taylor’s YA novel The Night Wanderer). Lillian Benojee is dying, and her children, including the new chief of the Otter Lake Reserve, Maggie Second, are crowded in her house, saying their good-byes. Which is why every single one of them is a little taken aback (to say the least) when a man clad in black leather and a black helmet drives up on a 1952 Indian Motorcycle, walks into the house “like he’s been here a thousand times before,” and knocks on Lillian’s bedroom door. Virgil, Maggie’s son and Lillian’s grandson, sneaks around the side of the house to look through Lillian’s bedroom window. He sees the man, young, white, blonde hair, and blue eyes, lean in and kiss “his grandmother, and quite passionately too. It was the kind of kiss you see only in movies and on television, the eyes-closed, toe-curling kind.”
The man sticks around for Lillian’s funeral, but when he doesn’t leave again, Virgil’s worried that there’s something more going on. Especially when the strange man introduces himself as John Tanner to Virgil, and then as John Richardson to Virgil’s mother, and then there’s the fact that Virgil was sure John’s eyes were blue and now they’re green, or maybe hazel. When John basically tells Virgil to stay out of his way so that he can go after Virgil’s mom Maggie – “You see, I knew your grandmother way, way, way before you were born…That was the last time I felt good. I want that feeling again. I’m hoping it runs in the family, if you know what I mean” – Virgil starts to get really worried. His mom’s been dealing with the stresses of being chief, especially because the Otter Lake First Nation has just bought three hundred acres of new land. Maggie’s listening to all of the suggestions for what to do with that land – waterparks, movie studios – and, as Maggie notes, working on the political side of the purchase as well. As she drives up to her mother’s house, Maggie reflects, “the idea of Native people getting more land was an absurd concept to most non-Natives. Five hundred years of colonization had told them you took land away from Native people, you didn’t let them buy it back. As a result, the local municipality was fighting tooth and nail to black the purchase.” To Virgil, the stress of the mysterious John coming into her life seems like one more thing that Maggie doesn’t need.
He ends up enlisting in the help of his Uncle Wayne, his mom’s brother, who lives alone out on a teardrop-shaped island that is known as “Wayne’s Island.” Virgil knows his uncle is weird, but he didn’t really anticipate the fact that Wayne has been in training as a martial artist. All over the island there are “broken branches hanging off trees in every direction. They were all snapped in the same manner, either to the right, or to the left, in a small spot near the base. No long pressure fractures as if an axe had done it.” Virgil has some trouble convincing his uncle that Maggie needs help, especially because all he has to go on is John’s changing last name and eye color, and the fact that all of the raccoons seem to hate him. He doesn’t help himself by telling his uncle about the threatening petroglyphs he finds “on my favourite rock,” because his uncle just answers, “You have a favourite…rock? That’s so sad.”
But as time passes, it becomes more and more evident that John isn’t exactly who he says he is. In fact, Wayne suspects he might be Nanabush, “The Trickster? The central character of Anishnawbe mythology, the paramount metaphor in their cosmology? The demigod? The amazing, handsome, intelligent and fabulous Nanabush? That Nanabush?” The petroglyphs Virgil found on a rock of two figures that looked like John and his mother riding off into the sunset take on another meaning. His uncle explains,
“It was those petroglyphs you mentioned that got me thinking. I thought it was impossible but still…you see Virgil, many cultures, ours included, believe the west is the land of the dead.”
Things clicked for Virgil. “The setting sun!”
“Exactly. He arrived, and your grandma, my mother, went west. Nanabush knows how to get there, and back. And now, maybe, he has developed an infatuation with your mom.”
“Oh my god! I just thought he wanted to move to Vancouver with her.”
Motorcycles and Sweetgrass is packed full of humor, good writing, nuanced characters, and outstanding story. The book even contains a conversation between Nanabush (John) and Jesus, albeit in the dream, where John says, “Hey, I read that book about you, your biography…that big black book everybody talks about…Needed an editor. No offence, but it went on forever.” Motorcycles and Sweetgrass has a strong appeal as a crossover book – Virgil is a grade-seven student in the novel (and Hayden Taylor jokily notes, “The bell curve was invented for boys like him), and is such a strong and likeable protagonist, comparable to those found in YA literature. It’s a great read, and there’s really so much going on in a Drew Hayden Taylor books, layers and layers of narrative and story to soak up.