Motorcycles & Sweetgrass Study Guide

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass Study Guide

“Motorcycles & Sweetgrass” is a captivating novel written by Drew Hayden Taylor, published in 2010. Set in the fictional Anishnabe (Ojibwa) community of Otter Lake, Ontario, the novel combines elements of magical realism, humor, and cultural exploration to tell the story of one family’s journey towards healing, reconciliation, and self-discovery. Through a cast of colorful characters and a blend of traditional Anishnabe folklore and contemporary storytelling, Taylor crafts a rich and engaging narrative that explores themes of identity, family, community, and the power of storytelling.

Plot Summary:

The novel centers around the life of Virgil, a young Anishnabe man who returns to his hometown of Otter Lake after spending several years away. Virgil’s return coincides with the arrival of a mysterious stranger named John, who rides into town on a motorcycle and soon becomes a source of curiosity and intrigue for the local residents. As Virgil navigates his complicated relationship with his estranged mother, Maggie, and grapples with questions of identity and belonging, he finds himself drawn into a series of increasingly surreal and magical events.

As the novel unfolds, Virgil and the residents of Otter Lake find themselves caught up in a series of misadventures and encounters with the supernatural. From encounters with shape-shifting animals to visits from ancestral spirits, the novel is imbued with a sense of wonder and enchantment that blurs the line between reality and fantasy. At the heart of the story is Virgil’s quest to uncover the truth about his family’s past and reconcile with his heritage, a journey that takes him deep into the heart of Anishnabe culture and tradition.

Themes:

  1. Identity and Belonging: Throughout the novel, Virgil grapples with questions of identity and belonging as he tries to reconcile his Anishnabe heritage with the influences of the modern world. As he reconnects with his family and community, Virgil begins to embrace his cultural identity and find a sense of belonging that had eluded him in the past.
  2. Family and Community: “Motorcycles & Sweetgrass” explores the importance of family and community in shaping individual identity and experience. Through Virgil’s interactions with his mother, Maggie, and the other residents of Otter Lake, the novel highlights the bonds of kinship and solidarity that connect people to one another and give meaning to their lives.
  3. Tradition and Modernity: The novel grapples with the tension between tradition and modernity, as the residents of Otter Lake navigate the complexities of life in a rapidly changing world. Through Virgil’s journey, Taylor explores the ways in which traditional Anishnabe culture and values can coexist with the influences of Western society, offering a nuanced portrayal of cultural hybridity and adaptation.
  4. Storytelling and Mythology: Central to the novel is the power of storytelling and mythology to shape individual and collective identity. Through the retelling of traditional Anishnabe legends and the creation of new stories, the characters in “Motorcycles & Sweetgrass” explore themes of history, memory, and cultural heritage, highlighting the enduring importance of storytelling in preserving and transmitting indigenous knowledge and wisdom.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Virgil’s journey towards self-discovery and reconciliation with his heritage reflect broader themes of cultural identity and belonging in the novel?
  2. In what ways does Taylor blend elements of magical realism and traditional Anishnabe folklore to create a unique and compelling narrative?
  3. Discuss the role of storytelling and mythology in the novel. How do the characters use storytelling to make sense of their experiences and connect with their cultural heritage?
  4. How does the character of John, the mysterious stranger on the motorcycle, serve as a catalyst for change and transformation in the lives of the residents of Otter Lake?
  5. “Motorcycles & Sweetgrass” is set in the fictional Anishnabe community of Otter Lake. How does Taylor’s portrayal of this community challenge or complicate stereotypes about indigenous peoples and their way of life?

“Motorcycles & Sweetgrass” is a thought-provoking and enchanting novel that explores themes of identity, family, community, and the power of storytelling. Through a blend of magical realism, humor, and cultural exploration, Drew Hayden Taylor crafts a rich and engaging narrative that invites readers to reflect on the complexities of indigenous identity and experience in contemporary society. As we follow Virgil’s journey towards self-discovery and reconciliation, we are reminded of the enduring importance of cultural heritage and the power of storytelling to shape individual and collective identity.