Basil Johnston,
Crazy Dave
(Key Porter, 1999)

Basil Johnston has produced more than a dozen books about the Anishnabek (Ojibwe) language and culture. This is the closest he has ever come to writing a novel; really a biography and a history of his own family and his people, the Nawash of Cape Croker, Ontario.

Specifically, he is writing here about his Uncle David, a mentally handicapped man living in Cape Croker during the early years of the 20th century. A remarkable book, and Johnston's best, Crazy Dave tells the history of a people through the story of David.

David's survival, and the survival of the Nawash First Nation, as it is known today -- both against all odds -- intertwine throughout. It's the story of a mother -- Johnston's own grandmother Rosa -- and her son, fighting to survive.

Johnston is a brilliant storyteller. His stories have the most impact perhaps because he is so funny. Like Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful, Johnston gets you to laugh before making you weep. One hilarious scene turns bitter as Dave -- astoundingly mistaken for a Japanese soldier-spy in small-town Ontario -- gets beaten up and jailed by ignorant white people in tiny Wiarton.

He also uses bitter irony, particularly when discussing the history, which gets told from a different point of view than most of us grew up with. He is at is best when discussing European history (through the eyes of his characters: "The civilized nations could not let bygones be bygones in a civilized manner. They had never settled their misunderstandings except by war").

When word comes to the community about the Bataan Death March: "That happened to our own people ... but nobody on this reserve cares," his grandmother says. "The Americans did the same to our people. It was alright for them to do it, but when others do the same thing to them it's a crime, an atrocity."

There is a lot of gazing at history from the other end of the telescope here. History from the perspective of those it has disposessed. History not told by names and dates, but by anecdotes. What won't fit into a funny, pithy anecdote just won't fit into a Basil Johnston book.

Of course, Uncle David is the star of the book, a nonfiction novel about a man who couldn't fit in. Still, David did find a place in the community: "As long as Uncle David stayed where he belonged or didn't bother anyone ... neighbors could put up with him; as long as North American Indians kept the peace and didn't rock the boat, society could tolerate them,"Johnston writes.

Basil Johnston, author, ethnologist, residential school survivor and teacher, was told the old stories by his grandmother. He remembered many of them, and they are here. Johnston is still teaching the Anishnabe language in Nawash, north of Owen Sound Ontario. This is the story of his people.

by David Cox
25 February 2006

Buy it from