About this book
A Memoir, A Fiction, A Fantasy, A Thought Experiment
Harold R. Johnson
I open my eyes in the darkness, laying on my side, half my vision is of the earth and shadows; the other is of the sky, treetops, and stars. I should write Clifford’s story. The thought emerges fully formed . . . The thought dissipates. I close my eyes and the earth and the sky disappear. The warmth of my sleeping bag wraps around me and sleep pulls me under into that half-world where reality and fantasy mingle in a place where coherent thoughts disintegrate.
When Harold Johnson returns to his childhood home in a northern Saskatchewan Indigenous community for his brother Clifford’s funeral, the first thing his eyes fall on is a chair. It stands on three legs, the fourth broken off and missing. So begins a journey through the past, a retrieval of recollections that have too long sat dormant. Moving from the old family home to the log cabin, the garden, and finally settling deep in the forest surrounding the property, his mind circles back, shifting in time and space, weaving in and out of memories of his silent, powerful Swedish father; his formidable Cree mother, an expert trapper and a source of great strength; and his brother Clifford, a precocious young boy who is drawn to the mysterious workings of the universe.
As the night unfolds, memories of Clifford surface in Harold’s mind’s eye: teaching his younger brother how to tie his shoelaces; jousting on a bicycle without rubber wheels; building a motorcycle. Memory, fiction, and fantasy collide, and Clifford comes to life as the scientist he was meant to be, culminating in his discovery of the Grand Unified Theory.
Exquisitely crafted, funny, visionary, and wholly moving, Clifford is an extraordinary work for the way it defies strict category and embraces myriad forms of storytelling. To read it is to be immersed in a home, a family, a community, the wider world, the entire cosmos.
Clifford showed me how the knights in the old days jousted.
“See this.” It was a post he’d dug into the ground a little taller than my five-year-old self, with a board nailed to the top at right angles. One nail — because nails were precious and not to be wasted ¾ and a bit of plywood on one end. The other end of the board, an eight-foot two-by-four, that he didn’t trim off, either because he didn’t want to spend time sawing it, or because he would get in trouble for wasting wood, was left jutting out on the other side of the post. “That piece of plywood is the shield. Now I’m going to come down the hill on that bicycle. That's my horse. And this” — a pole about six feet long — “is my lance.”
“You watch.” He took me by the shoulders and stood me off to the side. “Now you’re going to see how it was done.”
He came off that bit of hill on that bicycle that didn’t have any tires, just bare metal rims that rattled as he picked up speed. The hill, because the bicycle didn’t have any petals and he needed the assistance of gravity. One end of his lance tucked up under his arm, the other end — “You have to hit the shield right dead centre. That’s the way they did it”— out in front of the bicycle that had a fair bit of hurry as he came past me.
And he did it.
I was the witness.
The lance did hit the shield right dead centre. A solid hit.
The shield spun away, pivoted on the single nail driven into the top of the post, and the other end of the board spun around, exactly like he planned it, exactly like he told me it was going to work. Except I don’t think he expected the long end of the two-by-four to come around so quickly and catch him on the back of the head.
I pick up the hoop. That’s all it is, a piece of plastic tubing, big enough to fit over a five- — maybe I was six or seven — year-old boy.
Clifford’s bubble maker.
About the Author
Harold R. Johnson
HAROLD R. JOHNSON is the author of five works of fiction and two works of nonfiction. His most recent book, Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (and Yours), was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction. Born and raised in northern Saskatchewan to a Swedish father and a Cree mother, he is a graduate of Harvard Law School and managed a private practice for several years before becoming a Crown prosecutor. Johnson is a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation and lives in the north end of Saskatchewan, with his wife, Joan.
Awards and Praise
PRAISE FOR HAROLD JOHNSON AND CLIFFORD:
Winner, Saskatchewan Book Awards: University of Saskatchewan Non-Fiction Award
Finalist, Saskatchewan Book Awards: Rasmussen, Rasmussen & Charowsky Indigenous Peoples’ Writing Award
“Clifford is a luminous, genre-bending memoir. Heartache and hardship are no match for the disarming whimsy, the layered storytelling shot through with love. The power of land, the pull of family, the turbulence of poverty are threads woven together with explorations of reality, tackling truth with a trickster slant.” — Eden Robinson, author of Son of a Trickster
“Clifford is a story only Harold Johnson could tell. By turns soft and harsh, intellectual and emotional, Johnson weaves truth, fiction, science, and science fiction into a tapestry that is rich with meaning and maybes. A natural storyteller, Johnson seeks imagined pasts and futurity with equal parts longing and care. This work allows readers and writers the possibility of new and ancient modes of storytelling.” — Tracey Lindberg, author of Birdie
“Harold R. Johnson is a wonderful writer, and Clifford is his best work yet. For fans of Jack Finney and Richard Matheson, this terrific book is a wonderfully human tale of memory both bitter and sweet, as well as a poignant exploration of time’s hold over all of us.” — Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award–winning author of Quantum Night
“Clifford is unlike anything I’ve read — it is at once a story of science and magic, love and loss, and a case for the infinite potential of humanity. It is a book of profound wisdom — an unpacking of the deepest truths of science in an effort to transform the pain of grief and regret into healing and forgiveness.” — Patti Laboucane-Benson, author of The Outside Circle
The story’s meditations on loss, family, and fateful actions prove absorbing from the opening page.” — Toronto Star
“A brilliant mix of realism and fantasy.” — London Free Press
PRAISE FOR HAROLD JOHNSON AND FIREWATER:
Finalist, 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction
“The book should be a bible in the fight for survival and recovery, for a better life for coming generations, and it should somehow be made available to band councils and urban community and friendship centres.” — First Nations Drum
“Johnson pointedly confronts the toll taken by alcohol . . . Written in the style of a kitchen-table conversation, Johnson’s personal anecdotes and perceptive analysis are a call to return to a traditional culture of sobriety. . . . [a] well-argued case.” — Publishers Weekly
“This is an extraordinary memoir by a Cree writer who understands the damage alcohol does when used to kill the pain caused by white Canadians stealing and torturing Indigenous children throughout this nation’s history. I know many white alcoholics but it’s always ‘the drunk Indian.’ Why? Firewater is a great book; it burns in the hand.” — Toronto Star
PRAISE FOR HAROLD JOHNSON AND CORVUS:
Finalist, 2016 Saskatchewan Book Awards Aboriginal Peoples’ Writing Award
“Johnson’s done some solid thinking about a world killing itself with its intellect while it denies its heart and soul in favour of more luxury goods” — Saskatoon Star Phoenix
“Corvus pushes back . . . playing with the space between the real and the imagined, the organic and the alive, the human and the animal.” — The Bull Calf Review
“An impassioned, formally innovative twist on the dystopian genre.” — Globe and Mail
“Johnson fortifies the place of Indigenous peoples in his frightening dystopia, offering up Cree ways of knowing as key to the hyper-technological aspirations of continental North America. For that, Corvus is an important intervention into climate-based, futuristic sci-fi.” — The Malahat Review