For over 6 or 7 decades, one of the province’s most hotly contested annual sports competitions has been taking place in Prince Rupert – the All-Native Basketball tournament. It’s the largest basketball tournament in British Columbia, but it’s much more than that. It is an indigenous cultural phenomenon that draws dozens of teams and communities from the northwest, the central coast, and beyond.
It’s also the backdrop for All-Native, the debut novel of Prince Rupert’s Rudy Kelly. A former journalist who covered the annual tournament for the daily newspaper, Kelly leans into his own ancestry to produce a multi-generational story about a Tsimshian family, spanning the 1960s to the 1980s.
The story breathes in the salty sea air of Prince Rupert, and takes us to the fish canneries, the working-class bars, the wharves, and the First Nations villages. Then and now, Prince Rupert is very much an indigenous mosaic, drawing residents from Tsimshian, Haida, Nisga’a, Haisla, Gitxsan and other peoples along the coast. It’s a unique place that has had its share of struggles, but the embrace by First Nations of basketball as a vehicle for community building has endured.
The passion for the All-Native tournament is conveyed through main characters Frank Wesley and his son Nate, both who have high hopes on the hardwood. As the reader settles in to All-Native, he or she will discover that the book is less about the tournament and more about the father-son dynamic in the Wesley family -one that exists in many families: the transfer of the father’s dreams onto the son, the striving to make one’s own mark, the awkward code that exists between fathers and sons that requires the interpretive skills and conciliation of the mother. In this story, the father-son relationship is upended by the emergence of Nate’s friend, BJ, a free spirit with an outgoing and, sometimes, mischievous manner. Inevitably, Nate is torn between loyalties to father and friend.
The emotional centre of the story is Nate – loyal, innocent, and likeable. From childhood, he is focused on playing in the All-Native. Upon entering the local high school in grade 8, he is in awe of the “hallowed halls” where the best played on the Rainmakers senior team. He is not a kid hoping to bust out of town – his heroes are near to him. The other characters revolve around him, before finding their own trajectory. Nate is the unfulfilled future for Frank and the ballast for BJ. Ultimately, the story becomes one of redemption and forgiveness. Kelly navigates authentically through sensitive and turbulent emotional issues.
The story also has a light touch and sense of humour. These are boys growing up, a coming-of-age fuelled by bologna sandwiches and Orange Crush, thinking a lot about girls (or hoping not to). For those who grew up during the time-frame of this book, you will find yourself recognizing a childhood that came before iPads and personal computers.
Indigenous novelists, like Eden Robinson and Terese Marie Mailhot, help bridge a cultural gulf by sharing their stories with a wider audience. Rudy Kelly’s debut novel is another contribution to improving our understanding of indigenous BC while entertaining with compelling characters in a distinctive setting. It’s a nice addition to the regional stories that help paint a more complete picture of our province, and a welcome break from quarantine.
All-Native was published by Prince Rupert’s Muskeg Press in 2020.
This review first appeared in The Orca (April 18, 2020). Expect more reviews of BC books that catch my eye on the Rosedeer blog in the future.
See review of Dan Marshall’s Claiming the Land, first published in The Vancouver Sun (April 20, 2019)