Armchair Book Club: North explored in Shoe Boy

Heather Allen explores a "nonvella"by CBC radio host Duncan McCue: Shoe Boy: A Trapline Memoir,

Fall is hunting season – whether for whitetails, or more to my liking, new books. But with CBC radio host Duncan McCue’s latest work, Shoe Boy: A Trapline Memoir, you can have both.

McCue’s book, which can be read in a single sitting, is a coming-of-age memoir. At 17, McCue is sent north to spend five months in a hunting cabin with a James Bay Cree family. His father has asked a friend to take McCue into the bush to get his son in touch with his Cree heritage.

Although he has already lived for a few years in the north, McCue feels like an outsider – lacking the group’s hunting, fishing and survival skills. He’s further isolated because he only speaks a few words of Cree. McCue is the cabin “shoe boy” – the one who does menial tasks such as sweeping and hauling water. But, he’s ready and willing to learn.

He observes how to make fish traps, place leg hold traps, shoot geese and predict animal movements. McCue knows he has been sent out to learn, but even as a teenager he’s surprised that no one overtly teaches him, or showers him with life lessons.

Refreshingly, McCue writes Shoe Boy in the same ‘show don’t tell’ manner. True to his journalistic roots, McCue doesn’t judge or moralize. The reader accompanies him into the woods and his past, and is free to take away what he or she chooses.

Readers will witness the landscape and culture of the Cree, and by default learn much about the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, and its continuing effect on the Cree people.

Shoe Boy, a longer work of creative non-fiction (a genre that combines truth and story) is sure to satisfy today’s audiences, who seem to devour memoirs and documentaries.

Technically, Shoe Boy is what is sometimes called a nonvella – the long form nonfiction equivalent of the novella. For the past couple years, the publishing company has been producing these nonfiction gems in an effort to revive the art form in North America.

Other books on Nonvella’s publishing list are: Opium Eater by Carlyn Zwarenstein, The Silicon Rapture by Adam Pez and Foodville by Timothy Taylor.

Many readers will be familiar with classic nonvellas such as Thoreau’s Walden Pond and Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. Shoe Boy might not be quite in their league, but it’s still a pleasant and informative trip into the woods.


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