Susan Currie’s The Mask That Sang is the story of Cass, who is twelve years old and moving into a house of her own, inherited from a completely unknown grandmother. Cass is pleased to leave the bullies in her old school behind, but her mother is unhappy at accepting anything from her long-estranged mother, no matter how desperately she and Cass need money.
At school Cass has a chance to start again, and boisterous Ellis seems friendly – but Cass can’t keep silent when she sees her new potential friend picking on another classmate.
The publisher’s synopsis is quite good, so here it is:
A young girl discovers her Cayuga heritage when she finds a mask that sings to her.
Cass and her mom have always stood on their own against the world. Then Cass learns she had a grandmother, one who was never part of her life, one who has just died and left her and her mother the first house they could call their own. But with it comes more questions than answers: Why is her Mom so determined not to live there? Why was this relative kept so secret? And what is the unusual mask, forgotten in a drawer, trying to tell her? Strange dreams, strange voices, and strange incidents all lead Cass closer to solving the mystery and making connections she never dreamed she had.
Cass is a determined protagonist who walks with her eyes wide open. She draws on her own experience to recognize the social currents around her despite what the adults say. She is also brave and kind: she steps in to help when it would seem in her own better interest not to interfere. (Which shows you that such narrow self-interest is its own punishment.) Cass and her mother are a close-knit pair, really the world to each other.
While the narrative remains focused on Cass, it shows her mother’s vulnerability and wiry strength, and strikes a fine balance between showing her audacity and courage in reaching to complete her education and the despair-inspiringly immense odds stacked against her. As the most significant adult – really, the only constant human in her daughter’s life, Cass’s mother is a deftly-drawn character.
Cass’s new friend, Degan, is a quiet artist. I had a little trouble getting a handle on him: at first he seems like a victim, then (and for the majority of the story) an entirely drama-less perfect (too perfect?) best friend character. On the other hand, like Cass, Degan has seen far more than most kids his age have – than many adults have, even – and it makes sense that he and Cass click, and that he doesn’t show his depths readily. Degan’s aunt is a delight, and I wanted more time with her. I would have liked to see Degan’s aunt and Cass’s mother meet, perhaps at the Turtle Centre*; I would have liked also to see more of this self-run Centre for Indigenous Peoples, perhaps in the middle of one of its programmes.
Ellis, who at first seems so open-hearted, throws out nasty racial slurs casually when he addresses Degan. The reader’s discovery of his double nature – friendly to Cass, a white-passing stranger; cruel to Degan, an Iroquois classmate – reproduces the bewildering experience of finding out first-hand that someone you liked holds unexpected, painful prejudices. This scene is a powerful witness that even “nice” people can be racist. Ellis’s attitude doesn’t come from nowhere. His father, when Cass finally meets him, is maybe more open about his prejudice than most, but his willfully ignorant, self-serving attitude is more common than Canadians like to admit. I am thankful that Currie puts all this so clearly. Fortunately, to balance this text’s Monsieur(s) Thenardier, there are truly good background characters, so don’t despair!
There is a pivotal letter which is both a strength of the story and its greatest technical weakness. The letter in itself is excellent: it explains the residential school system by focusing on the lived experiences of the children forced into them, and the multi-generational trauma that this violence caused (causes) in a way that is accessible for young readers. The tone of the letter is that of a trusted adult writing to a child. The letter is ostensibly written from one adult to another.
However! That oddity and an easy ending aside, The Mask That Sang is a loving account of one young girl – and her young mother – discovering their shared cultural heritage and the wider communities ready to embrace them, and is a much-needed story of contemporary urban Indigenous characters. Cass is quick, courageous, and affectionate, and a very fitting hero.
*I’m sorry, I may have the wrong name of the centre (pretty sure it had Turtle in it?); I lent my copy of this book out.