When the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network unveiled Blackstone in 2011, it drew support but also controversy. The show portrays realities on a fictional First Nation, warts and all, including corrupt governance. For many indigenous observers, the depiction struck close to home.
Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul is similar: it shows the good and the bad among both First Nation and white communities in the Miramichi Valley, a corner of northern New Brunswick.
Incidents is an artful retelling of a story that takes place in the summer of 1985, when a young Micmac named Hector Penniac dies in the hold of a ship which is loading pulpwood. A load slips and crushes him. The ship is called the Lutheran, a name implying the virtues and sins of Protestant theology. At one level this is a detective story. Roger Savage, a white man, a loner living on contested reserve land, was at the dock and becomes the main suspect. In due course, he too is killed. Chief Amos Paul develops a hunch that Savage was innocent. The story follows Paul's "private investigation" into the murder as conflict envelops the small reserve community. Throughout the book, the story shifts from 1985 to the present, as Markus Paul, Chief Amos Paul's young grandson, now an RCMP officer, deciphers the detective work of his grandfather.
An oft-repeated admonition to aspiring writers is to write about what you know. David Adams Richards took this advice to heart. For Richards, home is the Miramichi River valley. His novels are known for realism, a keen sense of place and the weight of family histories. He can lay claim to being Canada's Thomas Hardy. In Incidents, he applies all this to First Nation peoples.
A central tension in the story is how up-and-coming band leader Isaac Snow and recently returned from jail Joel Ginnish--half-brother to Hector Penniac--use Hector's death to undermine the leadership of Chief Paul and assume control of the community for their own ends.
How innocent individuals get caught up within agendas much larger than themselves defines Incidents as a tragedy, a tragedy wrapped up within a compelling murder mystery. It is also a moral tale directed to the naive who romanticize Aboriginal peoples. Just as Lutherans can conspire in Machiavellian politics, so too can First Nation leaders. Finally, the novel is a detailed study in the unfolding of crises, how they are manipulated and how they escalate.
Richards is not insensitive to First Nation peoples and their struggles. Quite the opposite. But in literary terms he is screaming to the bright-eyed idealists to give their heads a shake and realize that Aboriginals are...