Richard Van Camp knows how to tell stories about the closest matters of the heart and the deepest mysteries of the cosmos. Moccasin Square Gardens, his latest collection of short stories, begins with a romance set in the shadow of extraterrestrial spaceships engaged in boiling the world’s oceans to cleanse their pollution (“Gently, though, so no fish are dying”).
The accomplished author from the Tłı̨chǫ Dene Nation ranges further in the stories that follow, spanning apocalyptic tales of flesh-devouring monsters awakened in the pits of the tar sands, an examination of the disastrous wrestling moves exchanged by old friends, and an archivist’s journey in connecting with the spirit world through the guidance of his ehtsèe/grandpa.
What unites each story in the collection is a belief in the good humour and strength of humanity, at least if we can pull ourselves back from the brink of self-destruction.
As Van Camp says, referencing the benevolent ‘Sky People’ in his opening story, “I’m really hoping that the aliens who’ve been watching us slowly and knowingly destroy our planet hit the pause button on all the mystery surrounding them and hold a press conference to say, ‘Alright. It’s obvious you’re all useless at getting your acts together—well, most of you. So we’re here to let you know we’re watching you and we’re putting you on notice. Do not take your planet for granted!’”
In the trials faced and victories won by his characters in the collection’s stories, Van Camp makes it clear that he’s not waiting for intervention from above to solve our problems.
“This whole collection is a fight,” he says, “a fight for better leadership, a fight for an unwounded planet, a fight for an undoomed future, a fight against molesters, a fight against 28-year-olds still living at home yelling at their moms if their laundry isn’t done.”
The stories orbit around Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories, with characters travelling out into the tundra and down to the big city lights of Edmonton. Van Camp grew up in Fort Smith, and he signals its gravitational pull in his imagination by naming the collection after a central dance hall in his hometown.
“Moccasin Square Gardens is what we call the Roaring Rapids Hall,” he says. “It’s where they host dances, wakes, feasts, community meetings. The title, for me, evokes a dance, either for the purpose of attracting a mate or a good old-fashioned dust-up chucking knuckles.”
The storyteller builds on a body of writing that began with The Lesser Blessed in 1996 and includes formats from short story anthologies, to children’s literature and graphic novels.
Van Camp takes references from his past work as starting points in Moccasin Square Gardens. The collection brings in characters from Angel Wing Splash Pattern, The Moon of Letting Go, Godless but Loyal to Heaven, A Blanket of Butterflies, and Night Moves.
“Some stories show you characters when they were still alive or fresh out of jail or finally falling in love or soaring together over thousands of caribou who are watching them rise with the aurora,” he says.
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