The Ecstasy of Rita Joe begins as a trial. Rita Joe is the defendant, alone and without representation, against a policeman, who acts as witness against her, and the Magistrate, who will decide her fate. As the Magistrate’s opening lines demonstrate, he is determined to be stern but fair. Rita Joe’s first words, however, undermine the Magistrate’s eloquent exposition: She was picked up by undercover policemen who offered her money and then arrested her for prostitution. The Magistrate continues his paean to justice while Rita Joe professes her innocence and the Singer offers up a haunting, melodic verse.
The futile exchange between Rita and the Magistrate continues, setting a pattern for the rest of act 1. As the trial goes on, however, the past begins to interrupt and inform the present at various intervals. Even the Magistrate is haunted by memories: Rita Joe reminds him of a young, poorly dressed girl he saw once standing all alone by the side of the road in the harsh Cariboo country. He would like to extend to her the sympathy that this recollection arouses in him, but his sense of duty finally overwhelms his humanity, and he reverts to being officious. The Magistrate becomes increasingly exasperated as he questions Rita about whether she understands the charges against her, whether she can provide witnesses in her favor, and whether she is a carrier of venereal disease.
For her part, Rita seems neither capable of nor interested in defending herself. There is not much she understands or trusts about the system in which she finds herself caught. Thus, she welcomes those figures from her past who intrude upon the action, disrupting her dialogue with the Magistrate and distracting her from the chronic fatigue, hunger, and sickness from which she suffers. Jaimie Paul, Eileen Joe, the Old Woman, and David Joe are American Indians and appear to Rita alone; white people such as the Priest, Mr. Homer, the Teacher, the Policeman, the School Board Clerk, and various Witnesses (who double as murderers) appear both in Rita’s dreams and in the trial.
Like Rita, Jaimie Paul succumbs to the lure of the city. Upon his arrival there, he is exuberant and optimistic: He rents a room, finds a job, and delights in how different life is away from the reserve. His hopes fade quickly, however, and he loses his job, starts to drink, and takes to hanging around with other unemployed young American Indian men. Still, he will not return home; he is...
(The entire section is 1012 words.)