Blood Red Ochre by Kevin Major
Posted July 7, 2012on:
Kevin Major’s earliest novels typically portray the main character, always a teenage boy, in conflict with his family. Often the boy lives in a fishing village, which allowed Major to introduce Newfoundland culture to readers. In later books, such as Blood Red Ochre, Major began to directly infuse aspects of Newfoundland history, sometimes more successfully than others. The dilemma in doing such is whether one can expose readers to a world different from their own without confusing them. In Blood Red Ochre, despite some failings in style and one character portrayal, Major does a reasonable job of intertwining a story of Newfoundland’s indigenous Beothuk into a story about David, who falls for a new girl and fights with his step-dad.
As you can tell from the plot summary, if not for the Beothuk twist, Major is treading on familiar ground. Yet why not, when he does such an excellent job of portraying family conflicts and capturing teen boy emotions? I like the scene where David talks about how he and his mom rarely talk about school: “The school could burn to the ground, she joked, and she’d have to find out from someone else.” David then reflects on how once he had never thought of his mom in any other role than that of a parent, but now he is beginning to see that there is more to her life, including her reasons for not getting married to his father. In another great scene, David visits his dad for the first time. Often times, this kind of moment is portrayed in other media as highly dramatic, but Major shows it as awkward and almost mundane. To me, this seems more realistic, which is an adjective I would generally use to describe Major’s portrayal of relationships. Sometimes authors are so bent on constructing the plot in such a logical way that they forget life and people are not always rational. Major instead creates a scene where David cuts short a conversation with a friend for no reason other than a “rotten mood”. The last example I’ll mention is a scene in which David’s step-dad talks to David after David has visited his birth dad. David is surprised that the “old man” wants to settle their differences. “He never thought it would come to that.” And so now David has to rethink their relationship.
Alternating chapters focus on Dauoodaset, a fictional headstrong teenage Beothuk boy in love with Shanawdithit, the actual last known surviving Beothuk, who died in 1829 in her late twenties of tuberculosis. I suspect the reviewers (who seemed to be mostly Newfoundland students) were thinking mostly of these chapters when they faulted Blood Red Ochre for its boring plot. For some reason, despite telling David’s tale in third-person, Major decided to narrate Dauoodaset’s tale in first-person. I’m guessing because such a perspective would be more foreign to Major, the style is sometimes stilted and regrettably dull. And yet there were a few shining moments. When Dauoodaset returns to camp with two kills, “There has not been fresh meat in our camp for many days” and so “My father greets me with much smiling and even my mother loses her face of sorrow.” A hunter-thanking song is sung. Everyone is happy, but then the suggestion is made to play a dice game. That might have also been a time of merriment, except that Dauoodaset takes advantage of the moment to challenge the band leader for his arrows. The chapters which describe the bold move on Dauoodaset’s part to journey to the salt water to find food for the starving and weak band are taut with tension, as are those when white men shoot at and pursue Dauoodaset for cutting their fishing nets, which Dauoodaset interprets as robbing the Beothuk of food.
Interestingly, while negative reviews faulted Major most for his boring plot and surprise twist, I felt most off put by the portrayal of Nancy. David’s first impression of her is that she is different, foreign, and a bit mysterious. Major isn’t the first author, and probably won’t be the last, to introduce a character who is from a different time and place. However, perhaps because he doesn’t outright admit to this until near the end but rather just teases readers with clues about her eccentric behavior, Nancy never feels real. I wonder if perhaps her story might have been more successful if Major hadn’t tried to save it for a surprise. As for those clues, there are her strange responses to David’s questions: “I have learned not to waste time” and “I don’t have the time to spend with you if you’re interested in the marks” and “You keep your secrets and I’ll keep mine.” There are also her intensely negative reactions to horror movies and seeing a display of Beothuk at the museum. Finally, there is how weird her house is, being almost of freezing temperatures on the first floor and sauna-like atmosphere on the second floor. It’s unfortunate that she doesn’t feel more real, because Major does a wonderful job at portraying David’s dating jitters. I also love how true to adolescent relationships this description is: “When they reached the theater, she was still going on about what they might find and how impressed Dalton would be with their assignments. All David could think of was the two of them in a tent.”
As with Gaffer, which I reviewed earlier this week, Blood Red Ochre represents a creative way to convey historical events. To me, Blood Red Ochre will be far more accessible to average readers. Despite some flaws, it’s an engaging story. I’m eager to read more of Major’s books, to see what else I can learn about Newfoundland.
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
How would you rate this book?