Saturday, February 26, 2011

AS LONG AS THE RIVERS FLOW by James Bartleman (2011) Random House Canada, 247 pages

I heard James Bartleman read from this novel on Wednesday night at the Harbourfront Reading Series. I am predisposed to like his work, having enjoyed RAISIN WINE, his memoir of growing up Native in Muskoka and admiring the real work he has engaged in following his tenure as the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario--promoting literacy and mental health.

Throughout his travels to fly-in Native communities in the far north, Bartleman discovered the suicide epidemic of children who hanged themselves "to show how worthless they were; how fundamentally deserving of pain." AS LONG AS THE RIVERS FLOW is a composite portrait of such a place that has inherited the residential school legacy of previous generations and the shame and pain that entails with the younger generation of children who need to re-establish a cultural identity in order to heal.

Martha Whiteduck, the protagonist, remembers what it was like to be raised with respect for the land and the old ways before she was flown away to residential school from age 6-16 where she was beaten by the nuns and molested by the priest, Father Antoine--damaged emotionally in ways from which she would never heal. Returning to the reserve partially educated and distrusting, Martha runs wild. She gets pregnant and gives birth to a son, a boy she names Spider because of the birthmark on his brow.

Unable to stop drinking, Martha loses Spider to the Children's Aid and he is raised by a loving White family in suburbia who try to honour his Native traditions, but cannot begin to understand his temper. Spider's trajectory is a predictable one, where, as a victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, he ends up storming out of his adoptive parents' lives and finding belonging in a homeless community in Toronto, living rough under the Gardiner Expressway, stopping in at Evergreen on Yonge Street for a warm meal and panhandling to feed his addictions.

Meanwhile, Martha becomes pregnant again and gives birth to a daughter she names Raven. Her mother begs her to leave Raven with her to be raised in the traditional ways on the reserve and Martha agrees, because it gives her the opportunity to try to find Spider.

Years pass and Raven finds herself pledging a suicide pact with her pre-adolescent peers who feel so desperate about their futures that they plan to kill themselves on their thirteenth birthdays. Only when Raven confides in the chief does she get the support that she needs and he arranges for a Healing Circle for the community to face the horrors of their past and present and to find their way to forgiveness where actual healing may begin.

Bartleman does not shy away from ugly realities that continue to plague Native communities nor does he excuse anyone from their culpability. That Martha manages to offer forgiveness as a true gift is what is remarkable to me in this story and a reminder that the work of Truth and Reconciliation is essential.

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