Meg and Eric are staying in a houseboat moored on the edge of the island that is owned by a former hockey teammate of Eric. Meg, walking past the site of the murder, sees a distraught middle aged woman, verbally accuse a prominent carver of killing her son.
That night there is a feast for the Indian leaders gathered in Vancouver. Meg attends the banquet where they share “potlatch platters”:
The one in front of us overflowed with plump fried oysters of the giant variety and bright pink spot prawns, both unique to the cold seas off the West Coast. A large side of barbecued salmon filled another platter. Farther down the table, a third contained a haunch of venison smothered in a juniper berry sauce, while another was piled high with contributions from Eastern Canada, wild rice and fiddleheads. It was going to be quite the feast.
Meg and Eric learn the young carver was Allistair, a Haida who had been adopted by a white family in Vancouver.
As they are walking to the houseboat that night Eric is startled to recognize a woman in the window of a Granville Island condo. It is his stepsister, Cloe. Meg in turn is surprised because she is the distressed woman she had seen that morning.
Eric had been taken from his reserve in Quebec because his father had abandoned his mother before he was born and his mother killed in a car accident when he was two years old. Government authorities took him from his grandparents. He was adopted and raised in Calgary. Eric resented not being raised with an understanding of his Indian heritage.
Cloe, his white stepsister, had adopted Alistair when his mother, known only as Mary, had died after being stabbed when she was 8 months pregnant. The baby was saved but Mary died from her wounds.
The book touches but does not dwell upon the thorny issue of white families adopting Indian children and raising them as they did their white children. The adopted children are often frustrated as they are neither really part of Indian nor white culture. At the same time had Eric stayed on the reserve it is unlikely he would have had the opportunities and education to become the leader of his people.
Cloe and Eric have been estranged for decades. As they re-connect each struggles with the past grievances that are inevitable in troubled families.
At the same time the unnamed Haida carver suspected of the murder has stolen the log and managed to have it taken back to Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) north of Vancouver. He plans to carve a totem pole that will tell the story of his clan since the “shame” of the Old Chief.
Cloe is determined to take some of the ashes of Alastair to spread at Haida Gwaii. Feeling guilty at never seeking out his family Cloe decides to try to find his family on the islands and re-unite Allastair with his family.
Louise O’Brien, a Haida elder, has also invited Eric and Meg to come north to Skidegate for a potlatch and totem pole raising by a new Clan Chief of the Greenstone Eagles Haida.
The Haida rituals they experience are moving. My next post will be about aspects of traditional Haida culture and ceremonies and their spectacular button blankets.
In Haida Gwaii of the 21st century, life is a challenge with the fishing industry in decline and controversy over logging a continuing issue.
The book becomes a special Canadian mystery on Haida Gwaii. Harlick takes the reader into the history, geography and peoples of the islands. Great historic and cultural themes are integrated into the book.
Harlick skilfully uses the unnamed totem pole carver to introduce Haida history into the mystery.
The motivations for murder are very much from the lives of the Haida people on Haida Gwaii. I was reminded of how Stan Jones equally makes Inuit themes an important part of his Nathan Active series on the northwest coast of Alaska.
The Silver Totem of Shame in Haida Gwaii is on the edge of Canada. Beyond the islands the Pacific stretches to Asia. The islands are wild, beautiful, forbidding and fascinating.
In An Arctic Blue Death which took Meg to the northern reaches of Canada I found the ending contrived. The Silver Totem of Shame has a much better conclusion. It is a brilliant book rich in images and story. I am heading back to the bookstore for more Meg Harris mysteries.
I expect the book to be on the shortlist for best mystery for the 2015 Arthur Ellis Awards of the Crime Writers of Canada.
****Silver Totem of Shame is my 9th book of 13 for the 8th Canadian Book Challenge at the Book Mine Set blog.