When the Spirits Dance Reviews

When The Spirits Dance

When The Spirits Dance

By Larry Loyie with Constance Brissenden
Published by Theytus Books 

Reviews and feature stories from the following publications appear below in whole or in part. These reviews are of interest to educators, readers, librarians, booksellers, friendship centres, residential school committees, universities and colleges, elementary schools, and many others. For more information, contact the authors.Canadian Materials (CM Magazine)
New Trail
Sheila Staats, Six Nations of the Grand River Territory

CM Magazine, Volume XIII Number 12, February 2, 2007

When the Spirits Dance
Larry Loyie & Constance Brissenden.
Penticton, BC: Theytus Books, 2006.
44 pp., cloth, $19.95.
ISBN 978-1-894778-40-4.

Subject Headings:
Loyie, Larry, 1933 — Childhood and youth-Juvenile literature.
Cree Indians-Alberta-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Authors, Canadian (English)-20th century-Biography-Juvenile literature.

Grades 3-7 / Ages 8-12.

Review by Dave Jenkinson.

*** /4 Recommended


Lawrence went outside to the basin of water by the door. As he washed, he listened to the honking geese flying south for the winter.

Last night his mother had promised him, “We are having Sunny Boy for breakfast.” Even the name of the new cereal sounded tasty. Maybe it was like cake or candy, Lawrence thought hopefully.

Lawrence and his sisters never drank fresh milk anymore. Mama mixed Klim, a white powder, with water to make milk for them to drink.

Food was in short supply because of the war. Mama had a ration book from the government. Inside the book were stamps for milk, sugar, meat, butter, coffee, tea and other things from the store. Mama was careful about her quota of stamps. If she used them up, she couldn’t get any more. If she had unused stamps, she traded them for items the family needed.

Sunny Boy cereal was something new. Lawrence hurried inside to try it.

He sat at the kitchen table and looked at the Sunny Boy in his bowl. It was dark brown. He poured milk over it. The milk made from the powder look blue. He sprinkled a tiny bit of sugar on top.

He tried a spoonful of Sunny Boy. It was gooey and tasted like medicine.

“How do you like it?” Mama asked brightly.

“I like porridge better,” Lawrence said. He tried not to make a face.” 

A prequel to As Long as the Rivers Flow, winner of the Norma Fleck Award for nonfiction, When the Spirits Dance also deals with another transformative year in the life of Lawrence Loyie, a young Cree boy. In 1941, Lawrence, then just eight, lives with his parents and three sisters in Rabbit Hill, a small community in northern Alberta located just a half-hour’s walk away from the town of Slave Lake. In the fall, Lawrence’s father, Victor, a World War I veteran and father of nine, is called up to serve overseas, and Lawrence finds that many things change over the ensuing year as he has to assume some new responsibilities. Because Lawrence’s story is told in a chronological and episodic fashion, readers just get glimpses of some of the moments that Lawrence considered memorable over the book’s one-year time span, such as the day when a military deserter tries to steal the family’s supplies or the day a letter from Lawrence’s father finally arrives at the Slave Lake post office. While a three-page “Epilogue” provides hard facts about the period, including the information that many First Nations people who served in the armed forces during World War II later lost their Indian status while, at the same time, being denied benefits offered to other veterans, the main text also has many period details imbedded within it.

The book’s title is derived from the book’s concluding incident which finds Lawrence feeling old enough to camp alone while the family is gathering birch sap to make sweet birch syrup. During the night, Lawrence has a terrifying dream, one which includes a grizzly bear. Later that night, Lawrence’s grandmother tells him that his dream has brought him his animal spirit that will guide him through life. As the pair watch the dancing Northern Lights, his grandmother explains that “Our people believe that the lights are the spirits of our ancestors.”

A one-room school, a battery radio, wooden sidewalks, ration books, horses and wagons for transportation and gravel roads are just a few of the details that will remind readers of the book’s time setting. Some of the contents of When the Spirits Dance also signal the beginning of major changes in the lifestyle of these First Nations peoples. Grandpa walks 30 miles to bring Lawrence’s mother some smoked fish because he recognizes that “With your husband away, I’m sure your family is not getting enough wild meat or fish to eat.” From depending upon the land, rivers and lakes for much of their food, the family, without its hunter and fisher, come to count much more on store-bought foods, a change in diet which would ultimately lead to health problems. With his father away, Lawrence has no one to teach him how to “read” the forests, an education which is essentially terminated when Lawrence must attend a residential school, the story told in As Long as the Rivers Flow.

When the Spirits Dance, which is printed on glossy paper, is liberally illustrated with captioned, period photographs, both black & white and colour.


—By Dave Jenkinson teaches in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.


Reviewed in Geist, Volume 15, Number 63, Winter 2006

Book cover image of When the Spirits DanceWhen the Spirits Dance
by Larry Loyie
published by Theytus
reviewed by Patty Osborne

When the Spirits Dance (Theytus) by Larry Loyie with Constance Brissenden, the second book in a series of stories from Loyie’s childhood, paints a gentle picture of life in a First Nations community in northern Alberta during World War II. One night a train takes Larry’s father away to fight in the war and young Larry is left to help his mother, grandmother and three sisters cope with food shortages and the frightening presence of army deserters, who hide out in the bush and steal from Larry’s family. He finds solace in the beauty of the land and reassurance in family rituals: collecting birch sap to make syrup, listening to music on a battery-operated radio and walking to the post office to pick up the mail; and with the help of his grandparents he is comforted by the spirits of his ancestors. This memorable but unassuming book is illustrated with faded photographs of Loyie’s family, and a tiny glossary at the back gives English translations for Kokum (Grandmother), Mosoom (Grandfather), tansi (hello) and other Cree words.
— By Patty Osborne


New Trail: Spring 2007

A freelance writer and editor based in Vancouver, Brissenden wrote this children’s book [When the Spirits Dance] with Larry Loyie about his youth in northern Alberta during the Second World War, when his father goes overseas with the Canadian Army. Beautiful photographs of Loyie’s family and of the Slave Lake area complement the recollections of a confusing time. (Theytus Books, www.theytusbooks.ca)
— By Shelagh Kubish, Associate Editor, “Bookmarks,” New Trail, U. of Alberta Alumni Magazine


Reviewed by Sheila Staats, Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, www.GoodMinds.com

Review Highlight: 
“This important new title (When the Spirits Dance) brings to life the impact of World War II on First Nations in Canada from a personal perspective. This book fills a gap in the growing literature by First Nations writers about the recent history of Aboriginal Peoples. Highly recommended for elementary students as well as adult learners.”

When the Spirits Dance by award-winning authors Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden is their most recent children’s book about a Cree family during the Second World War. Larry Loyie grew up with his extended family in Rabbit Hill in northern Alberta.

In 1941 when Larry was eight, the family’s traditional lifestyle was interrupted as the need for an increased Canadian war effort reached Slave Lake in Alberta. The Loyie family was faced with the need for all able-bodied men to enlist in Canada’s army. Despite the fact that Victor and Marie Loyie had nine children and that Victor had gladly served during the First World War, the Canadian Armed Forces called up the 43-year-old Cree father.

The days of living off the bounty of the land with parents and elders teaching the children were over. The women, their children, and the elders had to survive on the scarce game and the rationing of staples such as sugar, butter, and tea. Larry helped his family survive without their father by drawing on the traditional knowledge taught by his parents and grandparents. Coming to terms of living with the uncertainty of war and the fear of losing their father were additional lessons for the children to learn. The family also had to deal with the threat of army deserters who had escaped in the area. The caring wisdom of their Kokum and Mosoom help the family live through the difficult months.

The narrative, told through Larry’s eyes, explains how the family rationed food, collected birch sap, and waited for any news from the battlefield. Throughout the story the authors have woven facts about how the war years changed the life of one Cree community. Teachings about the environment and the vision quest become vital parts of the narrative.

The reality of the Second World War is highlighted by the inclusion of black and white family photographs and images of the community in northern Alberta. Colour photographs showing the landscape and the Northern Lights add to the feeling that Mother Earth is central to the story.

This prequel to As Long As the Rivers Flow: A Last Summer Before Residential School is the second book in the Lawrence Series about Larry Loyie’s life. The story contains themes that examine the meaning of war for young children, the contributions made by courageous Aboriginal veterans, the importance of traditional knowledge, and respect for the environment. The young Cree boy in the autobiography obtains his Spirit Animal in a dream while camping alone and gains the respect of his Elders for his bravery.

This important new title brings to life the impact of World War 2 on First Nations in Canada from a personal perspective. This book fills a gap in the growing literature by First Nations writers about the recent history of Aboriginal Peoples. Highly recommended for elementary students as well as adult learners.

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