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"Over Here" is a short story written by Jack Hodgins, which first appeared separately in 1995, and in 2004 it became a part of the short story collection Damage Done by the Storm. The author was born in 1938, and grew up on the remote edge of Western Canada, on Vancouver Island where most of his stories take place. One of his teachers once gave him the advice that for the best stories he only needs to look for in his own backyard. He kept this advice and started to write stories set at "the ragged green edge of the world" (Gardiner 177). He stated that people's lives on an island, especially on an island at the "extreme frontier of the world" (Gardiner 163), is in many ways different from the lives of the people on the mainland where the old realities still reside, but which realities are not necessarily applicable on an island. This notion is especially true within the boundaries of smaller communities residing on an island. Jack Hodgins's characters are in most cases members of such communities. His works are frequently called fictions of magic realism, meaning that although the people and the settings are realistic, the stories often employ magical elements, thus the boundaries of reality and the creations of the mind are blended and contrasted at the same time. Magical realism helps to express "views that oppose the dominant ways of thinking" (Bowers 52) while it allows the reader to get a glimpse of the "protagonists' personal quests in a specific physical and cultural landscape of their own" (Delbaere-Garant 260). In the story of "Over Here", the protagonist's personal quest is manifold: he wants to be someone else, a brave Native Canadian hero although he is of Irish descent, while he also investigates if ethnic identity is inheritable. Throughout his quest, as it will be shown, he also learns about a part of the dark side of human nature.
The narrator and protagonist of this short story is an eight-year-old boy, who lives on a ranch together with his father. They most probably live on Vancouver Island, since there are a number of references to an indigenous nation, the Haida, and to the vegetation characteristic of coastal British Columbia. Douglas firs and cascara trees are growing abundantly on Vancouver Island, and on its west coast the soil is particularly rocky while the forests are lush and dense. This place, far from the seacoast, was uninhabited before the first settlers opened it up. There were no rivers or creeks, parts of the woods had to be cleared away to make the place habitable for people who wanted to make a living by growing crops and raising live-stock on their farms. The rich forests reflect the boy's intensely vivid and lively imagination. The rocky soil is hard to break and requires a lot of effort and hard labour to make it fertile. This affects the lives of the people since they have to be imaginative in order to make a living out of the land they live on. The impenetrable ground's unyielding quality also evokes the persistence and relentless cooperation of the people as a community, the stubbornness of the narrator himself and also that of Nettie. Turning the fields into fruitful cultivated lands is as impossible as the notion that these fields have once served as battlegrounds for the First Nations of the region.
The young boy is captivated by the stories told by his teacher about the lives, the history and the brave deeds of Canada's aboriginal people. He is so much taken by the stories of these people, like those of Big Bear and Sitting Bull who were fighting for their homeland and rights in the past, that he gradually becomes more and more immersed in his fantasies about becoming an Indian either by merit, by achievement or by birthright. He integrates the historical and the, for him, interesting facts about the Natives into his semi-imaginary world of Indians. When Nettie comes over he recounts the fierce, gruesome Indian battles that took place right around their homestead. The only problem with his account of these events is that in reality there had never been a battle in the area due to the nature of the landscape. In fact, even before the arrival of the first European settlers the First Nations of the region resided mainly along the beaches. The boy admits that the closest reserves are actually miles away. A good example of magic realism present in the story is the arrival of Nettie. The protagonist has been wishing for Native neighbours, who he could be proud of. His wish is about to come true when for first time a Native, a school-girl of the narrator's age, moves to their town. However this indigenous girl, Nettie is not supposed to know about her origins, and nobody is allowed to tell her. This becomes a major concern for the boy.
When he begins to look for proof that he might be or could become a Native Canadian he asks his father first if an Indian battle has ever taken place around the grounds of their ranch. Later on he inquires if there have ever been any Indians in their family. To his dismay his father cannot answer in the affirmative, although he suggests that his mother may have had indigenous ancestors and since they have no knowledge about her whereabouts she might have gone back to her tribe. Thus his father does not explicitly tell him that he is ostensibly of European ancestry (his grandfather was an Irishman), he does not tell him to stop daydreaming. Indeed he keeps his son's dreams alive, because he has dreams of his own too. They get by by making the most out of what they have, while the father is unable to give up on his hopes of eventually becoming rich. He insists on calling the patch of cleared land their own a ranch, although they donââ‚¬â„¢t have that many animals or do grow crops efficiently enough. This way, by insisting that they own a ranch, he tries to reassure himself that they are not broke, and are just on the verge of being wealthy.
The boy (not minding his father's implications that there is only a very slight chance of him being of Native descent) keeps on looking for proof that he could become an Indian. He interrogates Nettie to find out if being of First Nations lineage is genetically hereditary, or if the cultural peculiarities are something that one needs to grow up with; to see if these things are innate to people sharing the same ethnic background. The boy remembers a woman who was invited from a Reserve to give presentations on the daily life of her people. Of what she told them the boy gathers, in his own childish way, that Aboriginals prefer to eat smoked fish, and berries. Therefore he asks Nettie if she also likes this sort of food more than any other kind, but to his disappointment she does not react the way he wished she would, and she shows no interest in Aboriginal history either. He has to face that being an Indian does not necessarily mean that one has to act according to stereotypes. However he still does not give up on his various theories of possible circumstances to become an Indian brave: by blood, by nature, by being brought up as one, or by believing in being one.
The boy's nature is quite ambiguous: he talks a lot about war, bloodshed, about punishing people for their deeds, about killing his father, and shooting buffalos. His first thought when he sees Nettie's lipstick is that it is like war-paint, similarly, the color of the dried cascara bark also reminds him of blood. In his fantasies he usually ends up becoming a mighty chief, keeping slaves, and driving the white people away from the Natives lands. This is probably how he imagines the old world of the Natives, the world he wants to bring back and be part of. Thus he intertwines the facts of history with the fictionalized stories of the Indians. This way magic realism is also altering the realities of history through the mind of the boy. He also has rather strong feelings of moral justice, on the other hand. This injustice inflicted upon the people about whose lives he loves to learn made him start to see and sense that people around him are not perfectly righteous. People are talking behind others' back, and keep secrets which might be of critical value for those concerned. The adopting family of Nettie asked the whole community not to tell the girl who she really is, so her identity could stay hidden, and she could grow up like any other girl in their community while not being aware of her otherness. As precaution the Tremblays were letting everyone in on the secret in advance to avoid that anybody coming in contact with Nettie would accidentally blurt out the obvious. It is the father who points it out for the boy that none of the people disobeyed, because keeping a secret as a community grants the people a certain sense of satisfaction. As a community they keep watch over the secret together, they are part of a plot. They believe to be superior to the person, in this case Nettie, for knowing a secret about her that could change her life if it would get out. Therefore they perceive themselves as important guardians of the shared secret. This sensation of holding someone's life in his hands also comes over the narrator when he realizes that if he decides to do so, he could change the girl's life forever. He also experiences what it is like to have the capacity to keep someone at his mercy, which makes him feel powerful too like the rest of the people who were keeping Nettie's identity hidden from her.
It opposes his morality not to tell the girl that she is an Aboriginal. He would give anything to become one, and now here is a person who is denied the right to learn about her culture, traditions and Native identity. He thinks that it is highly unfair that he, who would appreciate the status, is not an Indian and that the girl who obviously is one cannot be one either. Frequently he ponders about the ethics of withholding the truth from Nettie; whether if it is really necessary not to tell her who she is; if it would actually do any good at all to tell her. How such a significant information would make him feel about himself is obvious since his dream would finally come true, but he realizes that he also needs to consider how Nettie might feel in such a situation. She might be glad and proud so much that she would wear moccasins to school and give herself an Indian name, but she might as well be unable to handle the situation and fly into a self-destructing rage for being betrayed for so long.
The boy feels that it is a rather unjust action of Mrs. Tremblay that she tries to hide her adopted daughter's nativeness behind a layer of lipstick, curled short hair, and purple-rimmed glasses. Presumably she wants to prevent that the children at school would start to call her names or talk about who she really is, because they may soon get tired of keeping the secret, or their tongues may slip and Nettie could overhear them. This way Mrs. Tremblay gives another reason to call Nettie names if the children decided to talk about her. She would only be different in a way like any other eight-year-old girl wearing glasses with lipstick to school would be. The mother said before Nettie's arrival that the true identity of the girl should stay hidden, otherwise Nettie will not be able to lead a life like the other girls of the community who will never have to face any racial problems.
The Tremblay family, and possibly the rest of the community believes that as a First Nations girl Nettie would most probably not be treated equally. Actually this is an implicit statement that they believe that it is a bad thing to be Native. However, the narrator believes the opposite: he thinks that being born a Native in Canada is the best thing that can happen to anyone; if he was a Native he would bring justice to the Aboriginals of Canada by becoming a chief who saves his people from extinction, and as a chief he would reign over his tribe and keep his hostages as slaves. This way he is pretty similar to the rest of the secret-keeping community, since one of his fondest wishes is to be superior and to dominate others' lives.
Nettie seemingly prefers to be kept in the dark, and pretends not to notice the obvious. Every time she talks with the boy, he is prone to make some nagging remarks about her. Subconsciously he might be bothered by the fact that Nettie does not care for who she is. He also decides that she probably does not even deserve to know, because she would not appreciate it the way he would. In reality she does care, but the boy misinterprets most of her reactions as indifference, like when her eyes go blank and it seems as if she went away inside behind her eyes. This happens at times when the boy hints implicitly at her Native heritage with his questions: whether she prefers smoked fish to salmon, or if she ever considered asking where she was brought from to be the daughter of the Tremblays. She knows very well that she is a Native Canadian, but she does not want to be reminded of that fact. When she becomes enraged by the boy, who says that he will not pay her, all the previous anger she felt towards him before spills out. So she confronts the boy right away to let him know what the others think of him and his father behind their backs. She hopes that maybe this way he would understand how it would make her feel if he told her the secret which, as a matter of fact, she knew about all along. Her Indianness is as obvious as the fact that the boy and his father are poor. She tells him that if they were Christians then owing to his father's low income, a priest would take him away from his father in order to put him into foster care. The boy thinks he needs to fight back, otherwise he will judge himself defeated. As soon as the girl claims that he does not know everything he fights back by saying that he knows something she does not. However he backs off when she dares her to tell her that one thing that he thinks she does not know. She gets furious, because she thinks the boy is too insensitive for bringing up the issue and also too much of a coward for not telling her in the end. She is angry with him, because it will take only one member of the community to ruin her cocoon of pretence. If anyone would ever enlighten her then she would not be able to go on pretending to be ignorant of the facts about her ancestry, and she would feel too exposed without the imaginary glass-case protecting her. She knows that people would look at her differently. Besides, she would have to admit that her adopting parents lied to her all along by not telling her the truth about her descent. Therefore in her own way she is brave for being able to protect herself, since she does not know in what better manner she could treat her situation. She pretends to be a good girl who is obeying, who does what she is told; she spends her life cushioned in ignorance, because if she would make it known that she knew then the people would not keep their thoughts about her origins to themselves. They would not call her names and handle her differently because of the lipstick which was intentionally put on her, but because of what she was born to be. The lipstick is something for which she could be blamed for by making a laughing stock of herself, but she did not want to be called names for something that was not her fault, something that should not even be a reason for bullying.
The narrator condemns his community for keeping important facts hidden from others, which might never become known for the ones concerned, so it would never turn out if it would have changed their life for the better or for the worse. He is not perfectly good either: he is mad at Nettie for being indifferent to her origins, her heritage. While the people think that being an Indian would be to her disadvantage, the boy believes the opposite. He would be happy to be First Nations, and thinks Nettie is ungrateful, like the people whose ancestors emigrated from Ireland to escape famine, and are ungrateful for what they have now. He is mad at those people who forget about their past, who only care for their present wellbeing. His father's behaviour lets him down, for he believes that he acts the same way as Nettie's parents do, keeping something vital hidden from him. When he asks what the other people might say about them behind their backs he winks at the boy, meaning that they both know who they are; that it would not matter what others have to say since they have each other and know better than to listen to the ranting and malicious remarks of those people who just want to reassure themselves that they were better off. The boy misunderstands his father's message when the father jokingly pretends that there was an untold truth hidden from his son too. He probably believes that this terrible secret was that they were so poor that he could be taken away to a foster home any minute.
The narrator refuses that in reality he is just an average boy "stick with his old man". He wants to be indigenous, and as one he wants to become a chief, a keeper of slaves, or someone saving his tribe. In the end he concludes that if he was a descendant (which he firmly believes that he ought to be) of Big Bear or Sitting Bull, then he would stand up against the white people and drive them back to Ireland to teach them a lesson. He does not give up his hopes that one day it would eventually turn out that he was somebody else all along: a hero, with the brave Indians' blood flowing in his veins. Almost every child at his age dreams about becoming some sort of a hero. At one time he mentions that once he will become a doctor, so he could save people along with Nettie's future children. Nettie decides to become a doctor too, but she has other goals on her mind: to become rich and work at a great big hospital. Putting on make-up as a mask, could also be seen as a magical element, where in the fashion of fairy tales the young girl is either turned into a beauty or is cursed to be ugly. Likewise, Nettie's imaginary wall protecting her from knowing the truth is just like the tallest summit of a tower where the princesses are waiting to be rescued. In either case the role of the prince falls on the boy, whose mission is to save the princess and provide a happy ending for their story. He tries to fulfill this role the best he could, because basically he wants to be the saviour of the girl and her people. He also imagines that consequently he should become a chief, sharing the fate of the princes who are granted a kingdom for their brave deeds. The boy imagines that one day he may marry Nettie. They would have half-breed children, and together they would find out about Nettie's roots.
A child wishing to become someone larger than life arises a number of inner conflicts and consequently brings forth questions not even thought of before. The little narrator boy comes to realize that there are people who actually have no choice but to take on a role of somebody else imposed upon them. He learns through the course of the action and introspection that being somebody else is not a choice or a desire for some people, but a necessity, a burden. He realizes that even though he would be glad to live with such a burden, others might feel differently about it. His feelings against the injustice brought upon the Native people of the past is intensified by the fact that people in his own time, in his own community are still unfair and dishonest with the 'Natives', which in this case means being secretive and hiding the true identity from Nettie. Although he cannot control his childish behavior he always feels ashamed whenever he does cause or thinks of causing pain to others he cares about. In the end he is unyielding to let go of his dreams that one day he might learn that he was all along the descendant of great Indian heroes, and would continue their legacy by fighting injustice, especially now that he knows that even the adults of his community are morally reprehensible.