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Book Reviews Review: Duncan McCue’s The Shoe Boy is an exploration of identity

Duncan McCue has released a memoir, The Shoe Boy.

Thomas Billingsley/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Title
The Shoe Boy: A Trapline Memoir
Author
Duncan McCue
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
Nonvella
Pages
84
Price
$16.90

Cross Country Checkup, the CBC's national open-line radio show on Sunday afternoons, was first aired in May, 1965, amid the debate over universal health care – thus the "checkup" in the show's name. Over the past two decades, Checkup was indelibly defined by the distinctive voice of Rex Murphy.

Last September, Murphy's retirement was announced, and last month, CBC television reporter Duncan McCue was named the new host – to little notice. The Canadian Press ran a 133-word story. McCue, 45, is best known to viewers of The National, and he took the Checkup chair on Aug. 7. The first show focused on the newly established national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. The second considered the "dirty, corrupt" Olympics and wondered, given this, why the sporting spectacle draws so much attention. Last Sunday's show turned its eye to Saskatchewan and the racist outpouring online after the alleged murder of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man, by Gerald Stanley, a 54-year-old white rancher. McCue is a skilled interviewer, and the show feels renewed. The country's national identity is complex, fractal even, and cannot be reduced to anything singular, such as one sport, or one band (as much as instincts and gravity might pull us in that direction). McCue feels like the right guide for these times.

Broadcast hosts are often familiar strangers, people we know but obviously do not actually know. McCue's arrival at Checkup, however, coincides with the recent publication of his short memoir, entitled The Shoe Boy, which provides a glimpse of the man whose voice will likely become resonant among CBC Radio listeners.

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McCue tells a story of his life at 17, when he spent five months at a Cree hunting camp in northern Quebec, figuring out who he was as he straddled the past and the future, and two cultures, in the wilderness.

Identity – personal, community and broader still – is the heart of this strong, slim volume.

McCue grew up in Peterborough, Ont., his mother white, his father indigenous, Anishinaabe, a university professor. When McCue was 12, the family moved to a Cree village, Chisasibi, on the shores of James Bay. McCue only lived there for a year before he was dispatched back south to a boarding school in Ontario.

McCue was a bookish nerd, but he relished the wild. "The one place I always felt at peace – freed from paralyzing nerdiness or confusing cultural duality – was outdoors," he writes. Still, he was not an outdoorsman. He did manage to shoot a goose during a two-week hunt in the bush but he wasn't agile in the rigours of life on the land. He was envious of his Cree peers.

His time came at 17, after high school and before university. He joined a Cree family, the Matthews, at their one-room hunting cabin on a lake an hour flight east of the village. McCue's story is revealing. It's a picture few are familiar with, where the daily focus is food, shelter and fire, a way of life on the land that fades from the modern landscape.

There's McCue's personal story, a teenage boy becoming a man, forging his identity, never mind being away from his girlfriend and speaking only rudimentary Cree. It got lonely. McCue frames this against the setting, many times the opposite of bucolic: Hydro-Quebec's massive dams and how they cut into the culture of the Cree; the tattered state of small indigenous communities.

McCue's story is intimate. He sprinkles in funny scenes. It is the more difficult ones that reverberate. One day, when he is out alone to check his rabbit snares, he settles at a pond, where he had previously seen a beaver. He aims to bring it back to camp. After several hours, cold, aching, he sees it. He shoots. He misses – "by a lot." McCue starts the long walk back to camp. At the crest of a hill, it is quiet. The cold vista of never-ending black spruce. "Today," he writes, "the land seems unforgiving and harsh. I realize how simple it would be to kill myself."

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Reflecting, years later, McCue doesn't know why suicide slashed into his mind – but it did. He had never shared the story before The Shoe Boy. McCue relates his personal experience to his later work in journalism covering indigenous issues.

"I was," McCue writes, "like so many indigenous youth struggling their way into adulthood, acutely aware of what I was not. I did not speak my native tongue, I was not a very good hunter, I did not know how to sew moccasins. I felt like a pretty lousy Indian."

McCue's consideration of his past shines a light on our present. The Shoe Boy is a valuable read and will enrich anyone who tunes in to CBC Radio One on Sunday afternoons, as McCue establishes his voice in the conversation of Canada.

David Ebner is a Globe and Mail reporter based in Vancouver.

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