Books we want to hear about from people we want to know

Stretched past the breaking point

Reviewed by Sharon Broughton (August 15, 2019)

From the Ashes: My Story of being Metis, Homeless and Finding My Way by Jesse Thistle, Simon & Shuster, August 6, 2019, 368 pp., $19.80 

From the Ashes is the compelling first-person memoir of Jesse Thistle’s journey, through the darkest of times to reconciliation and renewal. It is hard, but essential, reading. It tugged at my heart and spirit. I couldn’t put it down yet, at times, I couldn’t keep reading.

This is a Canadian story. It is for those looking to better understand the lived experience of Indigenous peoples and the depth of the loss of relationships with the land, family, elders and community. For me, as a non-Indigenous person, it is a story that supports the path of learning and reconciliation. 

It took 37 years, and more hardships than most will ever experience, for Jesse Thistle to be reunited with his Metis-Cree heritage, culture, language and traditions, a connection lost when he was three years old. 

Surrendering to the memories of the smell of his grandmother’s cooking and the sound of his grandfather’s music, Jesse falls to his knees on the land where his grandmother Kokum Nancy’s cabin had been. Saskatchewan remembered him, the land whispering his welcome home. 

His haunting words “I remembered them. I remembered my mother’s people. I remembered who I was” convey both the immeasurable sorrow of loss, as well as the deep joy of rediscovery. 

Told chronologically through sharply-focused vignettes of incidents in childhood, adolescence and adulthood, and interspersed with Jesse’s original poetry, From the Ashes is a page-turner. Through the lens and voice of his earliest childhood memories to the once homeless, drug-addicted man he became to the now clean and sober Jesse of today—a PhD student, national representative on Indigenous homelessness, a Trudeau and a Vanier scholar—his story is revealed. 

We first meet Jesse as he picks Saskatoon berries in the bush by the railway tracks with his maternal grandmother, a proud Michif woman in Saskatchewan, and we follow him as he is abandoned, along with his two older brothers, by both of his parents when the three boys were all less than six years old. From the poverty and hunger he experienced while in his father’s care to the grim struggles living at the hand of children’s services to landing halfway across the country at the Brampton, Ontario home of his paternal grandparents—who offered as much stability and safety as they could—the trajectory of his early life left a deep mark on Jesse. And through it all, his Indigenous heritage was denied, silenced and lost. 

By his early 20s, after faltering in school and haunted by the disintegration of his family and parents—whose own struggles with violence and trauma meant they were not able to care for him—his life slid out of control into a cyclical haze of drug use, petty crime and homelessness.

 “Hard” is a worthy descriptor of this book: the story is about hard lessons, hard times, how hard it is to let go, to give up, as well as how hard it is to believe how far a person and family can be stretched past the breaking point and still recover.

The darkest times are captured with the spare and haunting words of his poems. In reading “Windigo,” I experienced how his survival was truly against all odds:

starvation sets in
breath freezes
in january’s wind
lost and alone,
I swill back the pain; it burns and belches
rage and despair
leaving only a windigo
who cannibalizes himself.”

Jesse’s redemption begins when, on a second time through a treatment program in Ottawa, he began to study and learn, for the first time, about his family’s real history. As he recovers from addiction, he processes the unimaginable pain of intergenerational trauma and the repeated history of abandonment. Finding his own reasons why everything in his life unfolded as it did, he begins the journey back to who he is. With exceptional focus, determination and strength of character, Jesse develops a new future for himself that includes finding friendship, love and a life partner, as well as a passion and vocation. 

This book is a story of turning points, of resilience and hope, of the kindness of strangers, of how important a leg up at the right time, in the right way, can be, and of the essential connection of culture and heritage to wellbeing and self-esteem.

In his final poem My Soul Is Still Homeless, we hear his struggle to fully grasp how far he has come and where he is today:

At night,
In between slumber and consciousness
I sleepwalk
My soul not yet aware
That my wanderings are over
And I have a home.”

When he learns who he really is: “You’re Cree and road allowance Michif, Jesse. You come from a long line of Chiefs, political leaders and resistance fighters,” I felt like cheering him on, wishing he and his wife the best for a future where they create a new story for their families, honouring their reclaimed history and culture.

Jesse Thistle

I am thankful to Jesse Thistle for this offering of himself, for shining a light on the profound and damaging effects colonization has had on Indigenous peoples, and for sharing the rays of hope his focus brings.

On a personal note, I have had the unique privilege through my work of having visited Northern Saskatchewan and several First Nations communities in support of projects to revitalize Indigenous languages. In recognition of the importance for young people to see, hear, learn and experience their culture, language and heritage with pride, this work has focused on children’s books. I know that today, students are learning and speaking Michif and Cree, something Jesse did not have the opportunity to do as a child. I find myself imagining a future Michif children’s book to capture a link to Jesse Thistle’s story.

(Sharon Broughton, M.Ed. is currently the CEO of Prince’s Trust Canada, a national charity focused on youth employability, veteran entrepreneurship and Indigenous language revitalization.)

Alicia Elliott weaves narratives that reveal the true history of Canada

By Diane Hill (August 15, 2019)

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott, Doubleday Canada, March 26, 2019, 240 pages, $24.75

I am not the imagined reader Alicia Elliott held in her mind’s eye as she wrote A Mind Spread Out on the Ground.”

Unless you are an Indigenous woman or non-binary, two-spirit person, you aren’t either.

But please don’t let that stop you from devouring this collection of personal essays, because a) it is excellent, and b) if we can stay even half as curious, courageous, and reflective as Elliott herself, maybe we can finally begin to repair the inestimable damage caused by colonialism in Canada. 

Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario. She won Gold at the 2017 National Magazine Awards for the title essay in this book, then was handpicked by Tanya Talaga for the 2018 RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award. One of her stories was chosen by Roxane Gay for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2018. Russell Smith chose another for Best Canadian Stories 2018.

If you are her imagined reader, her primary hope is that you will feel “at home” in her words. For non-Indigenous readers, she has a different expectation: “I hope they’re not looking for a passive read, but something that challenges them to think differently.”

Despite her deep and justifiable anger at white Canadians like me, I still felt welcomed and included thanks to her equally deep respect for human dignity, which shines from every page. She is like a generous but fed-up neighbour who’s had enough of me parking on her lawn, stealing packages from her porch, and kicking her dog. It’s as though she offers me a deal: I will tell you some stories about my life if you will stop the bullshit and start asking yourself some hard questions. 

Her essays are a powerful mix of wry commentary, raw personal pain, fearless self-reflection, and memorable metaphors. 

Many of her topics have been written about for years: the multi-generational fallout from residential schools, the obscene Indian Act, the horrors of forced starvation and medical experimentation, the murders of Tina Fontaine and Cindy Gladue, Canada’s broken child welfare system, and the infuriating lack of clean drinking water and affordable food on many reserves. 

Elliott approaches these familiar issues via unexpected side-trips into subjects like cosmology, photography, epigenetics, the legend of Bluebeard, and Chips Ahoy! cookies. She takes us with her across time and geography and cultures, collecting apparently disconnected threads. Then she weaves them together in front of our eyes, creating fascinating narratives that help us to acknowledge the true history of Canada. 

White Canadians who harrumph at the use of the word ‘genocide’ to describe our country’s treatment of Indigenous communities ignore the historic proofs all around us. Elliott’s description of the process is devastating: 

“First, remove the means for the people to independently look after and support themselves and their community. Next, force them to become dependent on the very state that wants to destroy them. Withhold basic necessities. Wait.”

She wants us to see the damage our colonized, extraction-based mindset has caused and is still causing, not just to her and her family and to Indigenous communities in Canada and around the world, but to all of us and to the planet. 

At its core, her message seems to be: “We’re all in a mess. Here’s what I’m doing about it. What will you do?” 

With a white mother and Haudenosaunee father, Elliott straddles two worlds. In Grade Two she lied to a friend about her father’s ethnicity, claiming he is Puerto Rican. While her light skin allows her to occasionally pass as white, providing momentary relief from the racism all around her, she feels guilty for doing so. Sometimes her white features leave her feeling disconnected from other Indigenous people who look more “Native.” In one of the saddest moments in the book, soon after giving birth she realizes she’s relieved her baby has white skin. “No one should have to feel thankful that their child isn’t dark-skinned.”

The strongest essay in the book is Dark Matters

Dark matter is an immense yet invisible force that affects the trajectory of galaxies—indeed, the entire universe—yet we can’t see it, even with telescopes. Its presence was first recognized in the 1930s and its exact nature is still poorly understood. 

Elliott opens the essay by noting that scientists didn’t “discover” dark matter, they simply saw it for the first time. 

“Dark matter has always been here, filling space we once thought of as empty.” The idea that somehow it didn’t exist until scientists performed their calculations is just as arrogant as the colonizing Europeans convincing themselves they “discovered” North America. 

Then she describes sitting in a coffee shop learning the devastating news that Gerald Stanley, the Saskatchewan farmer who shot 22-year-old Colin Boushie in the head, has been found not guilty. 

Her reaction is visceral: she wants to vomit, to “cry or scream or collapse” but she’s in public and dare not make a scene in case someone thinks she is drunk. She can only dream of a world where “my family, friends and community weren’t seen as disposable, where our deaths mattered…where we were respected and loved and seen as humans.” 

Alicia Elliott (Photo: Ayelet Tsbari)

She reports the unashamed triumph of many white Canadians, who regard Stanley as some kind of folk hero, and the predictable denial that race was a factor in Boushie’s death. This despite the hundreds of years of evidence to the contrary, despite the thousands of Indigenous communities cruelly pulled off course into chaos. 

If whites stubbornly refuse to see racism, is it because it doesn’t exist? Or is there another reason? 

“Perhaps we can’t see dark matter because we don’t know what to look for. Perhaps we can’t see it because we don’t know how to look.”

With every word, Elliott helps us to see. 

(Diane Hill is the Director of Communication for the Gender Equality Network Canada, a national network convened and facilitated by the Canadian Women’s Foundation.)

Individual desires yield to a larger community need  

Reviewed by Nicole Salmon (August 2019)

We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood by Dani McClain, Bold Type Books, April 2, 2019, $29.14

If the title, We Live for the We:The Political Power of Black Motherhood, isn’t thought provoking enough, Dani McClain’s page-turning narrative reveals the fear, joy and hope associated with raising a black child in a world designed to strip away at their very humanity by painting a picture of them as dangerous, aggressive and criminal in need of being controlled and tamed. 

In the book, McClain explores the complex layers of black motherhood where part of your duty is to prepare children for a world that robs them of their childhood, denying to them the lightness of abandoned play and carefree existence. Black motherhood entails unavoidably and directly tackling issues at the intersection of race, gender, class, privilege, politics and power. How do you prepare and protect children to live in such a world?

Dani McClain is a journalist and writer who reports on race, reproductive health, reproductive justice, activism and community mobilization. She acknowledges a fairly privileged upbringing in an Ohio suburb surrounded by an extended network of family. We Live for the We is her first book, and she describes it as her “quest as a new mother to help my daughter understand as early as possible who she is and what she came to do on this beleaguered planet.” To help her navigate her journey through motherhood, McClain talked to other mothers, grandmothers and those engaged in mothering. 

The book’s title is taken from the words of Cat Brooks, a community activist and one-time mayoral candidate from Oakland California. In explaining to her twelve-year-old daughter why individual desires had to yield to a larger community need, Brooks says:

Our job as black mothers is to keep pushing the liberation ball down the court. Our obligation is to leave the world better for them and to ensure that they are equipped with the tools that they need to fight. We don’t have the luxury of living normal lives. I tell my daughter all the time—and it’s harsh—but we don’t live for the I. We live for the we.

The explanation provides a window into the reality of black motherhood and the added emotional weight and toil that comes with raising a black child. By talking to a diverse group of other black mothers, McClain reveals that, while all are faced with similar hopes, fears and angst about creating controlled spaces that allow their children to thrive and at the same time equipping them with tools that will serve to protect them on the outside, there is no one way to raise a black child.

The nine chapters in the book are organized along the three child developmental stages—early years, where their world consist of parents, home and family; the middle years, where the focus is on socialization and education, and the early teens to adulthood, where their values are being shaped for expression into the world. McClain sets out to address the relevant questions, concerns and topics that mothers normally have but, as a black mother, she knows she must contend with questions about race, protection and power. 

Early in the book she uses a simple example to highlight the nuance between white and black parenting. While white parents may not feel compelled to have the ‘race talk’ with their children and, if they do, the message is usually that race doesn’t matter and everyone is equal. For black parents, having a deliberate ‘race talk’ is an imperative, to allay their fears and to ensure their children are schooled on how best to protect their black bodies. McClain points to the added anxiety and responsibility that comes with needing to infuse very early on in her daughter’s life, a strong sense of self with the hope it will insulate and protect her from a lifetime of messages that tries to devalue her worth.

“I’ve been reminded of how much is asked of black parents and how politically powerful black parenting can be. The mothers of those killed by police or vigilante violence embody every black mother’s deepest fears: that we will not be able to adequately protect our children from or prepare them for a world that has to be convinced of their worth. Many parents speak of feeling more fear and anxiety once they take responsibility for keeping another human alive and well. But black women especially know fear – how to live despite it and how to metabolize it for our children so they’re not consumed by it.”

The accounts from interviewees throughout the book are quite powerful but the first and last chapters serve as the perfect bookends to the central theme of the book…political activism is embedded as part of the black motherhood experience.

The first chapter is called Birth and touches on anxiety, fears and things McClain concedes she knew, and didn’t know, leading up to the birth of her daughter. 

Black women are four times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than white women, for example, and black babies are twice as likely to die before their first birthday. McClain points to research that suggests these birth outcome disparities have more to do with stress caused by a lifetime of structural racial discrimination rather than individual circumstances and choices. In other words, a black mother’s position, class, privilege or education does not shift birth outcomes in significant ways. 

In the last chapter Power, McClain drives home the point that black motherhood cannot be disentangled from discussions or our understanding of power, politics and activism. Black mothers, who are leading the charge in public and high-profile ways, talk about the high personal cost of their political and community mobilization work. They grapple with questions about how, if and when to engage their children in their work. They acknowledge that their work comes at a cost of sacrificing time with their children and families. They don’t deny it’s a conflict that eats away at them, but they are also calledto do this work and hope that their children will in time come to understand and forgive them for the stolen time activism demands.

Dani McClain

We Live for the We is focused on black motherhood, but there is a familiarity with the situations and experiences described in it because the book’s release coincides with a period of unrelenting and heightened vitriolic language, attitudes and attacks on those deemed as “others.” 

It comes at a time of significant community mobilization and push-back against those who feel their positions of power, real or perceived, gives them the right to normalize and perpetuate patriarchy, misogyny and hatred. It is a time of assault on the progressive policies aimed at fundamentally improving the lives of marginalized populations. 

This book, then, is also for the “others” – parents, politicians, lawmakers and community activists—with the courage and drive to imagine, and fight for, a different type of world. 

(Nicole Salmon is the founder of Boundless Philanthropy, a fundraising consultancy specializing in providing support to charitable organizations.)

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