Acclaimed writer Tomson Highway reflects on his remarkable life in Permanent Astonishment— read an excerpt now

Permanent Astonishment by Tomson Highway is a finalist for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

Permanent Astonishment is a finalist for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

Tomson Highway in Songs in the Key of Cree. (Sean Howard)

Permanent Astonishment by Tomson Highway is a finalist for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

The $60,000 prize is the largest prize for nonfiction in Canada. The winner will be announced on Nov. 3, 2021.

Permanent Astonishment is Highway's memoir. The playwright and composer was born the 11th of 12 children in a nomadic caribou-hunting family. Surrounded by his family's love and the vast landscape of his home, Highway spent an idyllic childhood in the remote reaches of northern Manitoba. He recounts his early life, including his years in residential school, in this memoir about family, Cree life and northern adventures.

Highway is a Cree novelist, children's author, playwright and musician. Born in Manitoba, he is a member of the Barren Lands First Nation. His work includes Canadian theatre classics The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, novel Kiss of the Fur Queen and children's novels Caribou SongDragon Fly Kites and Fox on the Ice.

Read an excerpt from Permanent Astonishment below.

I was born and raised on the most beautiful location on the face of the Earth, northern Manitoba where it meets Saskatchewan the Northwest Territories, and what, since 1999, has been called Nunavut. Not only has this region of the world been blessed by nature a thousand times, its remoteness ensures its status as the world's best-kept secret. To this day, no one has seen it, and no one ever will, except for those of us who come from there: the Cree, the Dene (pronounced "Day-nay") and the Inuit. And even then so few are we in number that we are almost invisible against such vastness. And vast it is.

This from my sister, Louise, who saw it all … As with all Decembers going back to the 1920s, Cree caribou hunter Joe Highway and his wife, Balazee, are crossing this part of the world by dogsled. The only mode of travel up there at that time of year back then, this ootaa-paanaask ("sled" in Cree) is made of birch, a wood that guarantees the vehicle's lightness and therefore its fleetness. In essence a toboggan some eight feet long with knee-high sidings made of canvas, its prow curls up like a candy cane. Pulled by eight harnessed huskies walking or running in single file, some of them part wolf for, indeed, they look like wolves, it can hold six passengers if some of them are children of which, today, there are three, and still have room for cargo. A rolled-up tent, bedding, cooking appliances, clothes, food, the vehicle is packed. Moving about endless snowscapes with their entire home in tow like this, Joe and Balazee Highway are monarchs of the north, sub-Arctic royalty. 

They are travelling today — the fifth of December, 1951 — under a snowfall with down-sized flakes from their hunting grounds in the area just under the Northwest Territories the 150 miles south to Brochet ("Bro- shay"), the village that serves them as home base but home base only for they are almost always out on "the land." In a fully loaded sled, such a journey can take five days depending, of course, on weather. And what brings them to the house they own in that village which stands at the northern extremity of a lake called Reindeer are weddings, funerals, births, and feast days such as Christmas. Which is why, as good Roman Catholics, they are heading for Brochet to celebrate the birth of Jeezoos (Jesus) with extended family and to replenish their supply of flour, baking powder, porridge, bullets, other staples of the sort — and, of course, Dad's great passion, coffee. And, most important for this trip in particular, to be with Pitooria Wachask, the legendary midwife, the reason, in the end, for their early departure this year from the high sub-Arctic.

LISTEN | Tomson Highway reflects on his life and work:

Author and playwright Tomson Highway joined Tom Power to talk about his new memoir, Permanent Astonishment, which explores the joys of growing up in a Northern Cree community.

For as with every second year through 23 years of a marriage jam-packed with love, Mom is pregnant. Again. The 11th of what will be a final tally of one dozen children, I am due to arrive the week before Christmas. Or, at least, so has gone speculation, according to my sister Louise who, that winter, is 12 years old and the eldest of the three Highway children then in that dog-sled. I, however, am impatient. I can't wait. I won't wait. Which makes for an unexpected, and rather dramatic, turn of events. Because here we are crossing in a silence so extreme that heartbeats are audible, one silver-lined, ice- and snow-covered lake after another and one hoarfrost-lined, snowbound forest after another, when a voice cries out from the stern of the vehicle….

Excerpted from Permanent Astonishment by Tomson Highway. Copyright ©2021 Tomson Highway. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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