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Paddle Song: E. Pauline Johnson deserves better

by | Nov 14, 2021 | Review | 2 comments

publicity photo for Paddle Song

Cheri Maracle in Paddle Song

I acknowledge that I’m saying this as a settler: in my opinion, Paddle Song, the play about Canadian Mohawk/English poet E. Pauline Johnson, isn’t very good. In my view, this nineteenth century woman who toured across Canada, the US, and the UK reciting her poems while wearing a buckskin dress, is an intriguing cultural figure — and she was a literary star. She deserves better.

Written by Dinah Christie and Tom Hill, Paddle Song includes many songs, which were also written by Christie. They’re soft pop so, stylistically, they have sweet nothing to do with the period the play’s set in — and, other than a quick reference at one point, virtually nothing to do with Johnson’s Mohawk culture. Sample lyric, which Johnson sings to her grandfather after she has died: “I know I’ll surely miss this rollercoaster ride/Lead me to the sunshine on the other side.”

Paddle Song includes information and events, but there’s no narrative core. Relationships aren’t well developed, and thematically the text is thin. Johnson’s sister Evelyn emerges as an antagonist in the later going, for instance, but virtually no groundwork has been laid for this. Early on, Johnson’s mother Emily is presented as a stuffy British stereotype but, when she’s dying, all of a sudden we’re supposed to believe that she’s been the perfect mother.

In the first act, Cheri Maracle, who is performing this solo show, works too hard to enliven the thin material, but she’s an engagingly warm performer and strong singer.

Paddle Song works best when it allows us to see how far ahead of her time Johnson was. In one of the poems that we hear, for example, she assumes the voice of an Indigenous woman whose husband is setting off to fight colonial forces. And the poem “Cattle Thief” is a showstopper. In it a woman defends the body of a chief whom white settlers have murdered because he stole cattle: “You say your cattle are not ours, your meat is not our meat;/When you pay for the land you live in, we’ll pay for the meat we eat!/Give back our land and our country, give back our herds of game;/Give back the furs and the forests that were ours before you came;/Give back the peace and the plenty. Then come with your new belief,/And blame, if you dare, the hunger that drove him to be a thief.”

I want to know about Johnson’s personal relationship to material like this. Paddle Song doesn’t do a great job of providing that.

PADDLE SONG By Dinah Christie and Tom Hill. Directed by Dinah Christie. Restaged by Columpa Bobb. Produced by Cheri Maracle and presented by the Firehall Arts Centre. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Saturday, November 13. Running until November 21. Tickets.


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  1. knittingrid

    Did you see City Opera Vancouver’s production of Pauline at the York in 2014?

    • Colin Thomas

      No, I didn’t see it. Did it work?


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