This is the first book I’ve read by Thomas King, a well-respected American-Canadian Indigenous author who has won numerous awards in Canada for his writing, often focusing on issues facing First Nations people. Aside from his admirable reputation, he lives in my hometown of Guelph Ontario, and much to my delight, he references Guelph surprisingly often in his latest work of fiction, Indians on Vacation. He also has a reputation for biting humour, which is also on full display in this book. Because I read this on my own vacation, I was especially susceptible to enjoying it, but King’s work is so fabulous it doesn’t matter where you read it, you will love it.
Older couple Bird and Mimi are in Prague on vacation. Mimi loves to travel, Bird does not. Grumpy, missing home (Guelph!) and struggling with a myraid of strange health issues, Bird is dragged along to sightseeing locales and tourist traps by Mimi. Interspersed with their current travels are stories of their past vacations, memories of their short-lived breakup, and general insight into them as a couple. On top of Bird’s physical struggles, he is also burdened with a few mental maladies, which Mimi has fondly given names to in an effort to help him overcome them. For example, ‘Eugene’ represents Bird’s self-loathing. and like the book as a whole, these lighter references are painting a veneer over something much darker, lurking right below the surface.
Within a deceptively simply framework of a single vacation, King is able to introduce and explore a staggering collection of themes and ideas. Reading even one story line or thread of this book is satisfying enough, but the multiple layers of the narrative combine to create an equally entertaining and engaging novel. The character of Bird is a complicated one, yet I found myself identifying with him quite easily. His reluctance at leaving his comfort zone, his annoyance with Mimi consistently sleeping through their free hotel breakfast, his disdain at tourist traps meant to entertain the masses, these are all feelings I’ve myself experienced while travelling. He so succinctly summarizes the breadth of emotions one experiences while exploring; fear, annoyance, astonishment, and exhaustion. The different types of travel are also addressed as Bird’s ruminations on an all-inclusive vacation were especially memorable:
“I came home from the trip with a sunburn, a great story about Mimi having the top of her swimsuit ripped off on a jungle water-slide, and a dozen photographs of some very large iguanas.
But I don’t remember feeling that my social conscience had been improved.
The resort had been a sanitary bubble designed to shield you from the realities of culture and to limit your interaction with the local people. They were there to serve you, and you were there in your role as an ATM with a camera.” (p. 60 of ARC)”
I like to think of myself as a person who cares about others, so in my limited travels, I have come across this internal dilemma. I love visiting tropical places, and yet, it’s hard to not feel like you’re exploiting others while there. On one hand, you are helping their economy because you’re injecting cash into it, and many of these countries rely on the tourism industry. On the other hand, tourism is polluting these people’s homes, and we’ve all been witness to tourists behaving badly or treating the locals as servants. Like Bird and Mimi witnessing the devastating situation of the Syrian refugees while in a Budapest train station, travel offers us a respite from our regular lives, but introduces us to the hardships of everyone else’s.
Now I don’t want to give you the idea that this book is too heavy, in fact, there were many laugh-out-loud moments, and the banter between Bird and Mimi is simultaneously heartwarming and entertaining. Their shared history is extensive, and yet they aren’t immune to hurting each other’s feelings, at times Bird even questions why Mimi is still with him. The fact that they are still careful around each other (most of the time) is a testament to their longevity, and this sensitivity around the relationship of two youngish seniors is one we don’t see often in fiction, especially with this level of wit. If you’re looking for a balanced, well-written book that is both serious and funny, Indians on Vacation is just the ticket.
This sounds great! I love that an indigenous author seems to have written about something other than the problems of being indigenous – I often feel that though there’s been an upsurge of indigenous writing in recent years, we (the white privileged) expect them to churn out the same type of book about oppression all the time, so it’s good to see someone break out of that mould. I shall see if this is available over here… 😀
Canada has a really rich Indigenous publishing scene-luckily not all books are about the oppression indigenous people face (although this does colour most narratives in some shape or form) but I’ve read alot of indigenous-written humour, and Thomas King writes a successful mystery series as well 🙂
I’m super looking forward to this one. Not that I haven’t enjoyed his mysteries, but I’ve been itching for a novel-novel rather than a mystery-novel from him. (Guelph? Nice cover story. S’ok…I won’t tell.)
haha I know, I say Guelph, but I really mean Puslinch LOL
It feels aggressive that the wife dragged this guy with several health issues around! This didn’t sound like a lounge-y vacation at all.
haha yes, I can see why it would come across that way. Mimi can be very agressive…LOL
Great review! I haven’t ever read Thomas King before either and this sounds like a fun one to start with. Especially right now when I’m not going to any exotic locations anytime soon!
Now that I’ve read this one, I want to check out his mysteries, but I think this was a good book to start with.
I can’t wait to read this one. I loved Inconvenient Indian, which is really saying something since it’s nonfiction!
I want to read that one so badly!
I have been wondering if the character, Oz is real or one of Bird’s alter egos?
Gosh, it’s been so long since I’ve read the book I can’t remember now!
Thomas King is a wonderful writer; “Indians on Vacation” has made me think about details of my life, AND ‘ “This globe is a Mercator” says Oz. … ‘ has boggled me.
Is that some kind of subtle irony?
Does Harper Collins not have editors?
Is there some kind of symbolism that I’m completely missing?
I think you are a very detailed reader for finding that! I loved this book too, and it was just nominated for the Leacock medal for humour!
I was chocked too!