"The Mask That Sang," Quill and Quire

by Susan Currie

A wooden Iroquois healing mask, bearing brilliant eyes and a mass of black hair, sits abandoned in the home 12-year-old Cass Foster and her mother inherit unexpectedly. With its eerie sense of familiarity and a triumphant swell of mischievous voices, the object beckons to Cass. When her mother sells the mask to pay for a much-needed computer, Cass becomes determined to retrieve it. She enlists the help of her new friend, Degan, and the pair embarks on an extraordinary journey that leads Cass to discover her previously unknown Cayuga heritage. 

The Mask That Sang is the second book by Susan Currie, and one of two titles to win Second Story Press’s inaugural Aboriginal Writing Contest. The author draws on her own adoption and Cayuga ancestry to tell a story centring on contemporary urban aboriginal experiences, highlighting complex topics such as bullying, poverty, and racism. Her use of plain and engaging language while depicting the intricate intergenerational legacies left behind by colonialism and residential schools renders these topics accessible and relatable. 

Beyond its educational value, the book is also a fast-paced adventure story. Cass and Degan find themselves overcoming numerous obstacles, most notably Ellis McCallister, a clever and ruthless bully. At times, the book’s dialogue is stilted, making Cass and Degan seem older than their years, but Currie’s expert prose reveals that both have been weighed down by adult problems from an early age.

The Mask That Sang forces readers to confront the ongoing impact of the mistreatment of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, yet at the same time it offers a hopeful and positive perspective, focused on healing and the importance of embracing one’s community and culture.

 

"Powerful Lessons from Mysterious Iroquois Mask," Winnipeg Free Press

Susan Currie’s The Mask that Sang (Second Story Press, 112 pages, $10, paperback) is a story about friendship, family love and confronting bullying. It is also, however, about the effects of residential schools on their survivors, and about the importance of traditional myths and spirituality in indigenous culture. Written for ages 9-12, this is a second book by this Brampton, Ont. author. Currie was a winner in Second Story’s aboriginal writing contest, and while some of the details of the residential Written for ages 9-12, this is a second book by this Brampton, Ont. author. Currie was a winner in Second Story’s aboriginal writing contest, and while some of the details of the residential school experience which are unloaded in the last chapters of the book seem as if they were simply added to comply with the contest, the story succeeds because of the strength of its characters, especially Cass, the young girl, and her indigenous friend Degan. When Cass discovers an old Iroquois wooden mask in the drawer of her new home, she is at first shocked but then fascinated, especially after she hears music that seems to emanate from the mask. When the mask disappears, it takes the Degan’s tribal understanding to lead her to its recovery — and to knowledge that changes her feelings about herself and her future.

 

Excerpt from "Five Great Brampton Authors You Should Be Reading," The Bramptonist

"....Susan Currie is a Brampton primary school teacher of Cayuga descent who tackles the issues of racism and bullying. She writes about Aboriginal-themed topics and plot lines, bringing light to the ideas of lost heritage and embracing one’s heritage, and delving into the rich mosaic of First Nations culture.

"She won the Second Story Press Aboriginal Writing Contest in 2015. This allowed for the publishing of her manuscript for The Mask That Sang. 

"Currie manages to bring together an enlightening and interesting read, while also refraining from sanitizing the heart of the issues she addresses. Her works are blunt, honest, and refreshingly warm, and are an important addition to the growing number of literary works by authors of First Nations descent.

"Basket of Beethoven, a novel Currie wrote in 2001, was nominated for several awards, including the CLA Book of the Year for Children Award."

 

Kirkus Reviews:

"Fifth-grader Cass Foster’s life is altered after her single mother receives an unexpected inheritance that includes a house in a better neighborhood and the relief of a new school where Cass can escape the bullies that have made her life miserable. 

"It is move-in day when the 12-year-old discovers a mysterious carved mask hidden in a drawer in her new bedroom. The mask has a hypnotizing effect on Cass, singing to her by day and making its way into her dreams at night. On her first day at her new school, Cass befriends classmate Degan Hill, a First Nations boy who also knows what it’s like to be bullied. She invites him over to show him the mask only to discover that her mother has pawned it. Devastated, Cass and Degan decide to retrieve the mask, which still speaks to Cass, who identifies as “nothing.” The two friends learn from Degan’s aunt, a Cayuga healer, that the mask is an Iroquois false face, a sacred object that’s found its way into Cass’ life for a reason. Currie offers a light, bittersweet story, filtered through the innocence of children, that comes full circle. She does this with an ease that is endearing and educational as she weaves in the traumatic story of the impact that the foster-care system has had and continues to have on Native families.

"Drawing on her own experience discovering her Cayuga identity, Currie offers a tender, resonant tale." (Fiction. 9-13)

 

From Muskrat Magazine:

"The Mask Who Sang tells the story of twelve-year-old Cass, who lives with her single mother. When Cass finds an Iroquois mask hidden in the bedroom of her estranged grandmother’s house, she is inexplicably drawn to it. The mask seems to sing to Cass, showing her dreams of past traumas but also encouraging her to be brave when facing bullies. With the help of her friend Degan, the mask will lead Cass to uncover her and her mother’s lost Cayuga heritage. The story also draws from Currie’s own experiences, as she was adopted and discovered her Cayuga heritage later in life. “It is rare to find a manuscript that manages to entertain and charm while addressing such issues as racism and bullying in a positive and revealing way,” said [Cherie] Dimaline. “I was pulled into the story by the courage and depth of [Currie’s] characters and left both eager to effect change and enormously proud of my heritage at the end. This coming-home narrative is a unique find in literature and tremendously important to our story as Aboriginal nations.”

“We were able to sense what the characters were experiencing based on their ability to connect with modern Aboriginal life experiences and use of culturally authentic, vibrant details that were weaved throughout the storylines,” said [Dr. Jenny Kay] Dupuis. “With limited literature about urban Aboriginal experiences, it is important as an educator to support opportunities to advance the field of Aboriginal children’s literature in order to infuse cross-curricular approaches to Aboriginal issues and how they still impact us today.”

 

 

Press Release, Second Story Press:

May 19, 2015, Toronto – Two winners have been chosen for Second Story Press’s Aboriginal Writing Contest. The jury of Second Story Press publisher Margie Wolfe, Aboriginal educator and researcher Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis, and Métis author Cherie Dimaline all agreed on two outstanding submissions: Stolen Words, a picture book manuscript by Melanie Florence, a single mom and author of Plains Cree and Scottish descent who lives in Toronto; and The Mask Who Sang, a middle-grade novel by Susan Currie, a primary school teacher and writer of Cayuga descent who lives in Brampton, ON. 

Stolen Words is a powerfully affecting picture book for older readers about the intergenerational impact of residential schools. When a man’s granddaughter asks him how to say ‘grandfather’ in Cree, it unleashes a river of emotion when he admits that he doesn’t know his language anymore. Seeing her grandfather upset, she helps him to find his words again. “Melanie Florence uses slender language to deliver lush imagery in Stolen Words,” said Dimaline. “Addressing intergenerational colonization with poetic cadence and a strong storyline, Stolen Words is an honour song from our youth to the Elders.” Florence is the granddaughter of a residential school survivor and experienced first-hand the impact it had on survivors and their families.