Warning: Some elements of this review may not be suitable for those under the age of 14.
When readers think of the classics, what do they often think about? The Catcher in the Rye? Pride and Prejudice? The Great Gatsby? In other words, works by white and mostly male authors who are dead. Luckily, Canada has been working to include more authors of color in their canon. For example, The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp has achieved the status of an Indigenous classic and has been included on the CBC’s list of 100 novels that make you proud to be Canadian. Is the book worth all of that? I say it is.
Originally published in 1996, The Lesser Blessed is a coming of age story of what it is to be a young Native man growing up in Canada. Larry Sole is a Dogrib Indian growing up in a small town in the Northwest Territories. At age 16, he loves Iron Maiden and Juliet Hope – the high school “tramp.” When Johnny Beck – a Metis – moves to town, Larry is pretty much ready for anything, especially confronting his memories and his future.
I enjoyed it. Larry is like any other teenage boy right down to his thoughts about doing it doggy style. At the same time, he is fleshed out as a character. He can be brave, but he can also be vulnerable. He is a great storyteller, yet he has a hard time telling his own story. He has a traumatic past that involves his abusive father and an accident that killed many of his cousins. How he deals with them is very much in line with his self-deprecating and bottled up behavior. Also, the book is very aware that it takes time for him to heal, especially with the poem that Larry recites at the very end.
There were some people who compared Larry to the noted literary character Holden Caulfield. I can sort of see why. Both are teenagers and full of contradictions. I mentioned Larry’s above. As for Holden, he’s 6.5 feet tall with some grey hair, yet he claims that he acts more like a 13-year-old than an adult, and he distances himself from others despite wanting a connection too. Both are naive. However, the main difference between the two is that Holden is a cynic who has an allergic reaction towards phoniness, while Larry is more optimistic and a softie. While both paint their environments in realistic manners, they do so from opposite directions.
Johnny is a very charismatic character, as in one who’s so unique that he draws in outcasts like Larry. He’s one of those troublemakers that wouldn’t be one if it weren’t for the environment that he was raised in. For example, he changed the seating arrangements in one of his classes, so he and other students could focus better despite the ire of their teacher.
With a story that doesn’t shy away from tough topics, it helps that the environment is just as real. Van Camp really shows how crappy the town, in which the main characters live in, is with how much snow it falls every winter, the fights that occur at the school, and the floaters – the drunks that come during that particular season. The author integrates elements of the Indigenous culture at various points of the book too. These include various phrases as well as the Dogrib creation story.
I wish Juliet was a little more developed. I appreciated the moments, in which she isn’t talking about past relationships, the male characters, or her body. At the same time, this book is told through the eyes of a mostly horny teenage boy. In addition, there’s a movie version of the book (which has gotten accolades), so maybe she got more character development. This is why I’m not complaining too much.
The copy I read was the 20th Anniversary special edition. This consists of an introduction from the author himself about the novel’s legacy as well as two short stories “Where Are You Tonight?” and “How I Saved Christmas.” The first short story shows readers what the main characters are doing in one night, and it displays some unexpected character development, especially from Johnny. The second one details how Larry saved Christmas in his own words. I think his storytelling is best exemplified here as I could picture the dentist office and the man who often played Santa Claus, in which the author, uh I mean Larry, describes.
Overall, The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp is an enjoyable novel that deserves the recognition that it’s gotten in Canada over the years. Its realism adds an interesting dimension to YA literature. In fact, some don’t even consider this novel YA because of the content. I don’t blame them, but I would recommend this book for older teenagers and beyond, especially if they are looking for Indigenous authors and protagonists.
Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates. Also feel free to email me here for any review suggestions, ideas, or new titles!