In Him Standing by Richard Wagamese, Lucas Smoke, a young Ojibway man who earns his living by carving likenesses on the boardwalk, finds himself pulled into a centuries-old struggle – and Lucas is being used by the side he wants to oppose.
When Lucas Smoke learns the Ojibway art of carving from his grandfather, he discovers he is a natural. He can literally make people come to life in wood. But when he is asked to carve a spirit mask by a mysterious stranger, he quickly learns that his skill with a knife could cost him his life.
We’ll ignore the misuse of “literal,” okay? Because this is one fun, fast-paced book. Part of the Rapid Reads series, Him Standing is technically published by Raven Books, Orca’s imprint for adult lit. But since Lucas is only 20, we’ll count this as crossover YA. There is no reason a teen might not read this book, after all.
So! Lucas has been on his own for a few years, after his grandfather died and the family dissolved into squabbles over the inheritance. Now living in the city (which city is unspecified), he and his girlfriend, Amy One Sky, are pretty happy. Amy has more money and seemingly more education than Lucas, but this doesn’t divide them or cause friction in what is a comfortingly solid, loving relationship.
One of the neat things in this story, which is firmly centred on Lucas, is that although he is the narrator as well as the protagonist, and though his relationship with his late grandfather is the enduring force that shapes Lucas’s life, Amy and Sally Whitebird, an elderly Ojibway women they meet in the supermarket, are developed characters rather than relegated to the sidelines. They support Lucas without losing their own selves. Which is quite a feat in a story focused on a young man’s artistic and spiritual growth, not to mention his life-or-death struggle against an overwhelming force. The story is firmly Lucas’s; and (and yet) the text is very clear that it is because of these two women that Lucas has a story instead of the dead end that Gareth Knight and Him Standing have in mind.
That really isn’t a spoiler: “mysterious” figures on back copies are either love interests or villains, and it is clear which category Gareth Knight falls into as soon as he walks into Lucas’s life.
Obviously, I liked Amy and Sally. They are kind, sensible people, full of light and courage.
Sally crossed the room and picked up a rattle made from a turtle shell. She shook it in a wide circle. It sounded old and powerful.
“Your grandfather knew these things. He put legends into spirit masks. When he taught you, that energy was transferred to you.”
“But he never told me anything about any of this. He only taught me how to carve,” I said.
“That is the weakness they take advantage of,” Sally said and shook the rattle again. “Those who know the how of things but not the spiritual reason they do them.”
“What do we do then?” I asked.
She looked at me with iron eyes.
“We fight,” she said. (p. 72)
Lucas is, too. His narrative voice has a dance-like rhythm. You could call it plain speech if you took out the negative denotations of “plain.” His speech is straight-forward, which is not to say that he says all that he thinks and knows; reading is like hearing a friend tell a tale when you are casually hanging out, talking about your days.
I know many readers dislike dream sequences, which can come across as fragmented, vague, and frustratingly lacking depth or concrete detail. The dream sequences in this book, in however, read like a natural part of the character development and culture of the story. Dreams and the waking world are not disparate in Lucas’s life.
One of the really neat things in this book is it bypasses any “Chosen One” fate-ism (or fatality?). In a clever half-truth skewed through the foul perspective that ordinary humans are a dime a dozen, and not even worth that price, the villain reminds Lucas that he is far from the only person who is skilled with a knife. Sally, guide and elder on the side of good, also places no stock in any grand Destiny-with-a-capital-D. Sally’s perspective on Lucas’s position – on humans and on gifts – is markedly different and extraordinarily beautiful.
Him Standing is, as fits the series, a fast read, and a satisfying one.