As a poet and citizen deeply concerned by the Oka Crisis, the Idle No More protests and Canada's ongoing failure to resolve First Nations issues, Montreal author Mark Abley has long been haunted by the figure of Duncan Campbell Scott, known both as the architect of Canada's most destructive Aboriginal policies and as one of the nation's major poets. Who was this enigmatic figure who could compose a sonnet to an "Onondaga Madonna" one moment and promote a "final solution" to the "Indian problem" the next?
In this passionate, intelligent and highly readable enquiry into the state of Canada's troubled Aboriginal relations, Abley alternates between analysis of current events and an imagined debate with the spirit of Duncan Campbell Scott, whose defence of the Indian Residential School and belief in assimilation illuminate the historical roots underlying today's First Nations' struggles.
"...a bold choice of narrative style for a historical biography and one the author pulls off well."
"As Canadian biography deepens as a form, it will need books as intrepid, incisive, and compassionate, as this one, and before long Conversations with a Dead Man may be seen as pioneering."
"...eloquent and compelling..."
"Abley creates an extremely interesting and readable scenario -- invoking a Dickensian-like visit of a ghost from the past...deftly reveals a dark and not very well known period of Canadian history..."
"Abley has found a creative way to deliver a haunting history lesson...Compelling...probing...one can't help but keep turning the pages, wanting desperately, like Abley, to gain clarity on Scot''s actions. Commendably, Abley has addressed a highly charged question in a balanced, compassionate manner."
"Abley has produced something seemingly inconceivable: an intelligent, absorbing and, yes, entertaining book about an infamous Canadian villain who oversaw residential schools at the height of their brutality toward Aboriginal peoples...Abley analyzes Scott's poetry and policies, struggling with the paradox of his life: how could a poet write so empathetically about Aboriginal people and consign their children to merciless assimilation, abuse and death?...Abley's act of radical empathy makes it harder to turn the page on a chapter of our history we might otherwise slam shut."
“Mark Abley has undertaken a daunting task: reconciling the Duncan Campbell Scott whose pen inscribed the cultures of Canada’s First Nations in justly celebrated verse, and the same Duncan Campbell Scott who, as the overseer of residential schools and head of Indian Affairs, attempted to erase those same cultures from the pages of history. Abley, a fine poet himself, turns Scott, the bogeyman, into a man of flesh-and-blood, by—in a fine twist—making him into a revenant to be grappled with in regular visitations. The conceit works admirably. Reading Conversations with a Dead Man, I felt as if I had been waylaid, not by a dour Ottawa bureaucrat, by an Ancient Mariner with the most urgent of tales to tell.”
"Conversations between them are interspersed with well-researched and historically accurate accounts of Scott's activities. All of Abley's speculations about Scott in the fictive parts are based on solid evidence...careful research...Abley's original approach to presenting and understanding the issues -- through the prism of one man -- reveals much but also suggests much remains to be revealed. Agree or disagree with the conclusions, this well-crafted and engaging account makes good reading."
"Required reading...a necessary book."
"Resurrecting Scott in the pages of the book involved having his life-like ghost materialize at random intervals in the author's present-day home. Intent on restoring his posthumous reputation, he's visible and audible only to his host, who gets drafted into the role of an extremely skeptical Boswell; highly charged and brilliantly rendered conversations ensue. A potentially gimmicky device turns out to be an ingenious choice, drawing the reader into a subject that might otherwise have looked like impossibly heavy going...a book that should by rights help redress a long-standing imbalance in the study of Canadian history..."
"Two books by Montreal writers access 'the other side' in fresh, imaginative ways...Mark Abley's Conversations with a Dead Man summons the ghost of a famous poet to answer for his part in the destruction of First Nations communities. Both books increase our capacity for wonder and empathy, without offering easy answers to a spate of questions raised...Ingenious...this rich, resonant work should galvanize readers into action against the awful legacy of attempted genocide. Two powerful books, genre-benders, nourishing, provocative: read them both to escape surface noise, and enter into the private obsessions of two fine minds committed to the service of ambitious themes."
"Required reading...a necessary book."