Book Review: Indians on Vacation by Thomas King

Indians on Vacation – Thomas King (Harper Collins Publisher, 2020)

Blackbird Mavrias, better known as Bird, and his wife Mimi Bull Shield are on vacation. Residents of Guelph (it’s in Ontario, Canada), they have spent recent years travelling through Europe, sightseeing and exploring as tourists. They are ostensibly tracing the path of Mimi’s Uncle, who ran away to Europe years ago with the family’s sacred medicine bundle and disappeared. There is a halfhearted hope that they will find some evidence of Leroy or even the bundle itself but they are also beginning to collect items for their own new bundle.

The present timeline of the story is set in Prague (with a diversion into Budapest) but we also see Bird and Mimi travelling in other countries and there are lots of references to previous trips, as well as some interactions at home with Mimi’s mother. Having spent a summer in Prague, I enjoyed the setting as well as the send up tourist culture.

Bird is a reluctant tourist. A former, lauded photojournalist, he has stopped writing and, seemingly, working, though we’re not quite sure why until later in the book. Bird and Mimi have adult children now and have been together many years. King excels at capturing the ease, the comfort, and the frustrations of a couple who know each other in and out, for better and for worse. Mimi is the driving force behind the travel while Bird spends a lot of time complaining about travelling. This honestly started to wear thin on me. Whether it’s because I enjoy travelling and would love to see and/or re-visit many of the places Bird and Mimi go, or because I’m living through a pandemic that makes it impossible to travel internationally, Bird’s winning made me dislike him more than I think King intended. Bird has a huge amount of privilege to be able to travel so easily and seems entirely unaware of it.

That said, the idea of privilege is one that King explores well in other ways. Bird and Mimi are both Indigenous though with different backgrounds and personal histories. (Obviously.) When they decide to make a day trip from Prague to Budapest, they find themselves face-to-face with the refugee crisis when they arrive in the train station, packed with Syrian refugees. Although aware that this was going on, they realize it is an entirely different matter to see it in person. They are horrified but paralyzed by the magnitude of the situation and unsure of what to do. After returning to Prague, they grapple with the guilt of doing nothing. I found this to be a very honest exploration of how many of us live. We are aware of travesties occurring worldwide but they are often easy to ignore unless something causes us to have to look directly at them.

I can’t imagine that anyone likes to see anyone in distress, but as soon as I think this, I remind myself that I’m wrong. For the most part, no one much cares what happens to other people, just so long as it doesn’t happen to them. We have the capacity for compassion. We simply don’t practise it to any degree.

Indians on Vacation (pg 251 of ebook)

The story of Uncle Leroy that we are told also highlights the inequalities of Indigenous peoples in North America. King tells this story in a matter of fact way (we hear it from another character) while letting the reader draw their own conclusions. Similarly, King subtly highlights some of the racisms in Western Europe, particularly the somewhat strange obsession some Europeans have with the Wild West and the idea of “cowboys and Indians”.

Bird is a character suffering a crisis of self-identity, a crisis of conscience. King writes him so well that at times the book feels uncomfortably intimate, too self-revealing. I truly cared about Bird and Mimi, their history, what would happen to them. While I wanted Bird to whine less, I still wanted to travel around with them and watch them figure their own futures out a little more.

20 thoughts on “Book Review: Indians on Vacation by Thomas King”

  1. I… did not know there was a European obsession with the Wild West. That does seem strange. And I suspect the whining about traveling would get old fast, especially with as much as we’re all wishing we could get out of the house more these days! (Was this published during the pandemic?)

    1. There is! It’s…a little bizarre. In Germany there is a popular 19th century author named Karl May who wrote a series of Wild West books and there is a Karl May Festival. Friends of ours live in that town so we’ve visited the place though not the festival. It’s very much along the lines of “cowboys and Indians” from what I’ve seen. I don’t know how widespread this is but I definitely noticed it in Germany and the Czech Republic.

      Yes, it was published within the last year though obviously written pre-pandemic. Thomas King is quite well known in Canada but this is the first I’ve read from him.

  2. I’m so used to books with Native American characters that focus on hardship and mental health issues that I’m glad to see this one exists. I’ve read before in the black community that folks get tired of reading books and seeing movies that only focus on struggle (especially with movies; I’ve read that people are tired of civil rights/slavery movies).

    1. That’s a good point. I haven’t read King before but he’s quite prolific in Canada. He has a detective series featuring an Indigenous character and it seems to be the same there. Not about being Indigenous necessarily but simply representing an Indigenous man working in his field. And that representation is super important!

  3. I actually found Bird’s whining really funny, maybe because it reminded me of my Dad? LOL He lives in Guelph too and is a reluctant traveler. That refugee crisis scene was so powerful, because you are right, it happens to many of us-we know there are terrible things happening, but we have to keep living. How do you pick just one cause to worry about?

    1. That’s hilarious that your dad has so much in common with Bird! I didn’t dislike him I just found myself wondering why he kept whining. He and Mimi seemed to have a good relationship and if he really didn’t want to travel it seemed like they wouldn’t be travelling. So since they’re there, why not try and enjoy yourself? Plus, Prague is one of my favourite cities so maybe I was biased!

      It’s a bit of self-protection, I guess, to not want to look too closely at the horrors occurring in the world. We don’t know how to deal with it so we just…don’t.

    2. Yes, I remember reading somewhere (or maybe i heard it on the radio) that the fact that we know about all this international news all the time is bad for our brains, because we aren’t equipped to emotionally handle all the suffering we are now aware of in the world. I’m reading a pretty upsetting book right now, about the Boko Haram kidnappings, so I can relate to this.

    3. Yes, I’m sure I’ve heard something similar. Never before have we had such constant access to news. It seems like the world is worse but we actually just know more.

  4. Ha! Would this be a bad time to admit that my brother and I played cowboys and Indians all the time as kids? He always got to be the cowboy because he had the (toy) gun – so unfair! My job as Indian, I’m sorry to say, was to be shot and die dramatically over and over again. What can I say? Don’t blame us – blame John Wayne! 😉

    1. I think you can admit that! My brother and I used to have a whole sack of plastic cowboys and Indians and play with them all the time and it was much less politically correct in the 90s!

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