In her short story “The Loons”, Margaret Laurence employs the theme of racism and poverty as a medium to vent, and highlight the indignities of the Metis community. The story’s central, and dichotomous symbol,–the Loons–, as well as the author’s compassionate tone uniformly evoke and portray sympathy toward the Metis community. The story’s main focus is on both poverty and racism; the two challenges threatening the continued existence of the Metis culture. Together with increasing urbanisation, the cultural environment of the Metis community is, just as well, effectively destroyed.
The story portrays the death of the Metis culture as a consequence of not only poverty and racism, but also as a result of increasing urbanisation: their changing, impactful, effects on Piquette are what underlie her conflict with Vanessa. The conflict between Vanessa and Piquette is multifaceted, arising from the many plights of poverty and racism that Piquette has to face. In her childhood, Piquette limps through tuberculosis in her leg, but even worse, her impoverished lifestyle won’t aid to her quick healing. This creates a permanence in her limp which young Vanessa sees as an embarrassment.
She existed for [her] only as a vaguely embarrassing presence, with her hoarse voice and her clumsy limping walk… ” (Laurence 89). Even Piquette’s culture itself is downwardly looked on. The Metis do not belong in their setting. “… [They] spoke a patois that was neither Cree nor French. ” A language not spoken by any in their setting. As a result they are treated unfairly. As Vanessa’s grandmother put it, “they were neither flesh, fowl, nor good herring”, implying that the Metis were viewed ambivalently–as if they were unknown. Collectively, they are referred to as “half-breeds” (Laurence 88).
The poverty endured by Piquette and her family is painted all over their shelter. The Tonnerres –Piquette’s family-live in the center of a bush, a clearing with a shack. Their living in the bush paints a vivid imagery of alienation, a subtle allusion to their unbelonging presence in their setting. From their shelter, we can also sense poverty. The Tonnerres live in shack made of ‘mud and Poplar Poles’, a crude home that could hardly be more austere. Piquette’s disengaged character as a young child is a testament to her impoverished lifestyle at home.
She is constantly working at home because “[her father] would never do anything for himself as long as she’s there’ (Laurence 89). The constant work at home and the harsh living conditions all pile up, creating a dejected character. Piquette’s face, as a result, is ‘coarse-featured and expressionless, “as if she no longer dwelt within her own skull” (Laurence 91). Her head bears a facade of a mean life, brought about by the harsh conditions of poverty. Piquette’s eyes, which are black, mirror a feeling of hopelessness in her character.
To vanessa, Piquette “remained as both a reproach and a mystery” because her child labor at home was a life inconceivable to the rich, outside world (Laurence 93). Growing up, Piquette moves away from home, but with economic hardship, she immerses herself in the outside world to alleviate her poverty. With her new lifestyle, Piquette is spontaneous–a flamboyant version of her then younger and dejected self. This gives Vanessa a quizzical look, uncomprehending Vanessa’s blinding change. “Her face, so stolid and expressionless before, was animated now with a gaiety that was almost violent” (Laurence 94).
Like her father, and also because of trying to fit in, Piquette inevitably becomes a reveler. We begin to see this pattern of poverty unfolding in the Tonnerre family. Older now, Piquette marries an Englishman to seek end to her poverty, a revelation which creates an epiphanic moment for Vanessa. The Englishman works in ‘stockyards’, from which it can be implied that he has economic stability. When Vanessa catches this news, she can’t help but notice “the terrifying hope” in Piquette’s dark and hopeless eyes; the marriage would end poverty. “Her defiant face, momentarily, ecame unguarded and unmasked… ” (Laurence 95).
But their relationship is futile–her lack of education resulting in two closely born babies, and worse a break-up. She now becomes single parented, just like her father. And with life-ending poverty, she goes back into her father’s shack–the house which her grandfather has lived in for fifty years. We can sense chronic poverty collectively prevalent in the Metis community. The perpetual poverty of the Metis people is destructive, and this is counterpointed by the burning of Piquette and her two kids.
To Vanessa, the image of Piquette burning in the fire creates a certain ‘kind of silence’ because her hope for a bright future–a bright future for the Metis culture– is effectively being destroyed. Overall, the portrayal of the Metis people is grave and sad, arousing a certain level of compassion, which frankly is achieved by the themes and the central, dichotomous, symbol of the story–the Loons. The first interpretation goes that the wailing and ‘plaintive sound of the loons is symbolic of the mournful lifestyles of the Metis people.
The plaintive sound produces a respectable level of comfort for the wretched Metis. The harshness and the mean life of Piquette draws a suspicious belief in Vanessa that it might have been Piquette who alone might have heard the crying of the Loons (Laurence 96). Otherwise, who else would need to listen to such a mournful tone? An alternate, figurative, interpretation to the central symbol of the Loons is their existence, much like the existence of the Metis culture, is deeply dependent on nature, and that rising urbanisation threatens both of their existences in much the same way.
In the end, the Loons die when their environment is built into a city. Their natural world parallels that of the Metis community in that the Metis community has a sacred affiliation to it, hosting their various cultural rituals. Thus, when nature is urbanised, the Metis community is effectively dying out. Vanessa’s dad remarks: “[The Loons] must have sounded like that before any person ever set here. You could say the same, of course, about sparrows, or chipmunks, but omehow it only strikes you that way with the Loons” implying that many aboriginal communities are facing similar hardship, but that it only strikes you with the Metis culture (Laurence 93).
In conclusion, the story portrays the diminishing view of the Metis culture as mainly the result of dereliction to the part of surrounding communities. The poverty and racism endured by the Metis community, and the ever growing urbanisation, are all various factors that can easily be mitigated, or maintained by man. There is an essential need to collaborate in order to keep the Metis community growing, rather than declining.