Young Adult Lit: “Manitou island”

I’m developing a screenplay into a piece of fiction for young adults. It’s a story of native legends and magic realism, set in Northern Ontario on Manitou Island.

It was bright and hot; it almost felt like summer. I arrived at the island in the outboard and saw my mother sitting on the dock with a dark thin man, an Ojibwa.        

“We have a visitor, Gerbi.” Norma tied the bow of the boat. “This is Asawaswanay.”           

“Mr. Norberg.” He bent down and shook my hand. 

“Asawaswanay has come to us about the good spirits,” my mother said.      

“I am the Midewewin of my people,” he said. “What you might call a priest or a shaman.”        

“I didn’t realize there were any shaman left.”          

“The Midewewin was forbidden to practice the traditional ways some 80 years ago. We were forced to hide our ceremonies. Many of my people came to reject these ceremonies. The Manitou were forgotten.”  


“The Manitou are the spirits of the land. They inhabit the world, the forests, the waters, the sky, everywhere. The Midewewin communicates with the Manitou. They have spoken to me of this lake and this island.”

“Are you making a claim on our land?” I asked.      

He smiled and then said, “We have no interest in the gold.”

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, research can be one of the greatest aspects of the work. I spent a few afternoons in the Ontario Archives and was lucky enough to acquire a copy of The Robinson Treaty. IMAG2685This became a virtual gold mine for both historical information and Ojibwa names, two of which I used for characters: Asawaswanay and Pamequonaishcung. IMAG2687The question is whether to shorten them or not. I think not.

Gerbi Norberg’s Audio-Visual Image Manipulation

There are a number of issues presented in The Life and Home of Gerbi Norberg, including native rights, eugenics, animal trafficking and the extraction of precious elements. However one aspect that is of primary metaphoric importance is a computer system, a precursor to Computer Graphics Imagery (CGI). cgiI was a closed-caption editor at the time, which involved a lot of fast-forwarding and rewinding of the videotape, and watching the characters go back and forth, pause and start again, and got me to thinking about a system that could manipulate what was seen on the screen.

I’ll never understand why people believe what they see on television, in films. The camera is a mechanism, a process that manipulates. I remember watching The Ten Commandments when I was a kid. ten_commandmentsThat’s when I realized that movies were all lies. I mean, the movie spanned the entire life of Moses, from a baby to an old man. And when you do that, compress and expand time and space, that simple idea, it’s a lie. Montage. It’s a lie. Anyway, that was the starting point for my software for AVIM, or Audio-Visual Image Manipulation. It was a simple process. I only had to divide the screen into a grid with small enough coordinates that the manipulation was undetectable, and second, establish a language for the process. It wasn’t just a matter of typing in ‘Give the duck more feathers.’ duckI had to establish the coordinates for the duck in each frame and then create the code, instructing the system to match the form, shading and color of the duck’s feathers, make allowances, how the feathers might stick out and curl, and plot the trajectory from beginning to end. It just took time.

3-D Ojibwa?

I had a glimmer of light on my screenplay, The Life and Home of Gerbi Norberg, in 1996, when I piqued an agent’s interest by making reference in my cover letter to the assumed “teetering piles” of submissions on her desk. She liked the image and called. “Before you come down to chat, I would like you to address the title. The Life and Home of Gerbi Norberg doesn’t work, does it? You need something that will catch the audience’s attention.” I was most pliant; I arrived the next day with my newly christened Manitou island. manitou“What does that mean?”

“The Manitou are the Ojibwa spirits.”

“Spirits? That’s a start.” She scanned through the first pages. “Okay, and this. I’m not sure about these names. What’s this one? Asawsny?”

Asawasanay. He’s the spiritual leader.” I pointed out the name to follow. “And Pamequonaishcung is an elder. They’re Ojibwa.”Pamakon? Oh.” She turned the pages. “I’m not sure that’s going to work.”

“That’s what the story is about. It’s their spiritual return to the land.”

“Oh.” The meeting deteriorated from there, and there was no follow-up. I understood her point about making the story accessible, and changes of course could be made, but her approach was facile, like she expected an explosion of light. bibleI was supposed to amaze and astound, to make the sale, so that she could sell another. I balked. Eleven books later, I’m still struggling with that. (And, yes, I changed the title back to The Life and Home of Gerbi Norberg.)

Names: Short and Long Form

Rarely do characters have just the one name. For example, in All In, the main character is called Michael by most, but also Mikey by a colleague and Mike by a niece. Why the difference? What makes him more of a Michael than a Mike? Is it the formality? Is he more of a two-syllable guy? What makes him a ‘Michael’?mThis is a key issue in my bad side. Everyone – family, friends and colleagues – call the main character “Dee”, until she arrives in Newfoundland, where all the people she meets call her “Deirdre”. She actually tries to correct them, but they won’t listen. It is a moment of transference that she has no control over. deealoneMany of the characters in The Life and Home of Gerbi Norberg are Ojibwa and therefore have names which are hard for the Western ear: Bezhinee, Pamequonaishcung, Zawanimkee and Asawasanay. It is nonsensical to shorten the names to Bez, Pam, Zaw and Ass. As much as that may help the reader move through the text, the lyrical nature – and hence integrity – of the characters is

Naming names: Three Ways to Name a Character

Whatever the genesis, naming a character can be a challenge. Here are three common methods:

1. The name is symbolic of an attribute. Jason Quati (from The Sacred Whore) is a derivation of the word quat, meaning small pustule. (Yes, he’s a bad person.) The Adamantine sisters (from Sister Prometheus) get their surname from the hardest of substances, the rock to which Prometheus was affixed according to Greek mythology. Adamantine_ore

2. The name is a random discovery. I found a picture of a man named “Gerbi”  (from The Life and Home of Gerbi Norberg) in my father’s old files, who was a banker with whom my father worked in the 1950s. IMAG00013. The name evolves as the book is written. The main character in my bad side was originally named Sunshine (ugh) and then Francesca, Elle, Ellen, and finally Dee which actually changed ro Deirdre halfway through the book…because that was her name.outof fog