BOOK REVIEW | Canada Reads #4 – The Break by Katherena Vermette

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break — a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house — she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.

In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim — police, family, and friends — tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night. Lou, a social worker, grapples with the departure of her live-in boyfriend. Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister Rain. Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new partner. Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention centre. Officer Scott, a Métis policeman, feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city. Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed.

My thoughts:
Wow. It’s not enough, but it’s almost all I can say after reading Katherena Vermette’s The Break. This book is heavy and dark, but it’s also so incredibly important. It was necessary for me, as a Canadian, to read a story about my country from a perspective that is different than my own. I love the Canada Reads competition so much, because it brings stories like this to a greater audience. I actually picked this book up ages ago after Margaret Atwood recommend it on Reco, and I am so glad I finally got around to reading it.

The story opens with Stella, shaken and afraid, providing two police officers with the details of a very violent crime that she saw take place through her window in the middle of the night. The officers have different opinions on the information they get from Stella – the older assuming it’s just gang violence, and the younger sensing that something more vicious has taken place. What follows is a perfectly crafted account of not only the crime, but everything that surrounds it. Vermette dives into social issues, gang violence, police apathy, racism, alcoholism, spousal abuse, and what it means to live life in a broken system. It’s gritty, it’s bleak, it’s real.

The book is broken up into four sections, each containing a chapter narrated from the perspective of a different family member, as well as one of the police officers involved in the story. There are many characters to keep track of, but the family tree at the beginning of the book keeps everyone and their lineage clear. This could have become convoluted, but the opposite happened for me – as I discovered the familial connections I began to feel personally intertwined in their lives, almost a part of the family.

The Break should be compulsory reading for Canadians. If anything I mentioned in this review speaks to you, please go and get this book. While the book is  heartbreaking and raw, Vermette keeps the focus on the healing power of family and tradition. An absolutely stunning debut from a writer I will be watching.

Read my review of Fifteen Dogs
Read my review of Nostalgia
Read my review of Company Town

BOOK REVIEW | LaRose by Louise Erdrich

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
North Dakota, late summer, 1999. Landreaux Iron stalks a deer along the edge of the property bordering his own. He shoots with easy confidence—but when the buck springs away, Landreaux realizes he’s hit something else, a blur he saw as he squeezed the trigger. When he staggers closer, he realizes he has killed his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty Ravich.

The youngest child of his friend and neighbor, Peter Ravich, Dusty was best friends with Landreaux’s five-year-old son, LaRose. The two families have always been close, sharing food, clothing, and rides into town; their children played together despite going to different schools; and Landreaux’s wife, Emmaline, is half sister to Dusty’s mother, Nola. Horrified at what he’s done, the recovered alcoholic turns to an Ojibwe tribe tradition—the sweat lodge—for guidance, and finds a way forward. Following an ancient means of retribution, he and Emmaline will give LaRose to the grieving Peter and Nola. “Our son will be your son now,” they tell them.

LaRose is quickly absorbed into his new family. Plagued by thoughts of suicide, Nola dotes on him, keeping her darkness at bay. His fierce, rebellious new “sister,” Maggie, welcomes him as a co conspirator who can ease her volatile mother’s terrifying moods. Gradually he’s allowed shared visits with his birth family, whose sorrow mirrors the Raviches’ own. As the years pass, LaRose becomes the linchpin linking the Irons and the Raviches, and eventually their mutual pain begins to heal.

But when a vengeful man with a long-standing grudge against Landreaux begins raising trouble, hurling accusations of a cover-up the day Dusty died, he threatens the tenuous peace that has kept these two fragile families whole.

My thoughts:
Let me start by saying that Louise Erdrich’s writing is beautiful; she is incredibly skilled and I absolutely love her style. I thought I was going to love LaRose, but it was just OK for me.

This is, more or less, the story of two families grieving the loss of their sons. During a routine hunt, Landreaux tragically kills Dusty, his neighbor’s son, and not the buck he was after. According to an old tradition, Landreaux and his wife Emmaline must give their son, LaRose, to their neighbors as retribution.

Our son will be your son now.

My oldest son turns five tomorrow, and it’s hard for me to imagine how a child this age would comprehend being sent to live with another family. From a mother’s point of view, I was interested in Nola’s struggle – she has lost her son, but in turn gained another. She is confused and suicidal as she walks though such an uncertain path, all the while doting on LaRose.

I enjoyed exploring the history of the LaRose name and the insights into Landreaux’s past, but found the book a bit of a slog to get through. I wanted to know Dusty more – I felt his loss through the character’s pain, but couldn’t process it personally since we never get to know him. This is such a great idea for a story, but I wanted more from LaRose’s point of view, and would have loved to go deeper into everyone’s pain.

BOOK REVIEW | Wenjack by Josheph Boyden

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
An Ojibwe boy runs away from a North Ontario Indian School. Too late, he realizes just how far away home is. Along the way he’s followed by Manitous, spirits of the forest who comment on his plight, cajoling, taunting, and ultimately offering him a type of comfort on his difficult journey back to the place he was so brutally removed from.

My thoughts:
Wenjack is the most important book that I have read in 2016. As a Canadian, I’ve heard about the horrors of Residential Schools, but they weren’t in the school curriculum and always felt like something distant. Wenjack helped to open my eyes to the terrible injustices suffered by so many First Nations children from the 19th C to 1996. Canada is known for being peaceful, and it can be hard to fathom the true evil that is a part of it’s history. From physical, emotional, and sexual abuse to eugenics, Canada’s history is wrought with pain.

Boyden takes us on a beautiful journey as he tells us the true story of Chanie, a young boy who ran away from a Residential School only to die in the elements on his journey home. This story is creatively told from the perspective of both Chanie and the creatures of the woods he is walking through. Chanie will stay with me forever – if he were alive to day he would be just a little older than my parents.

Wenjack ties in with Gord Downie’s project, The Secret Path. I watched the film when it aired on CBC, and plan to pick up the graphic novel soon as well. I’m thankful to both Boyden and Downie for bringing this story to light in popular culture. Now, reconciliation.