Each of these books is penned by an indigenous writer, each considers a great loss, each is powerful on its own terms.
Together their stories resonate and amplify readers’ understanding of a vitally important issue.
Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau’s novel Winter Child appears to be the simpler tale.
One woman’s loss. Her son. The tale translated by Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli.
But this loss, understood within the broader context offered in Harold Johnson’s Firewater, reaches beyond one son, one mother and even one community.
First, however, the story of a lost boy. Even with First Nations’ descendants on both sides, he was born with blue eyes.
“He was my moth child flitting around the flame of the beyond,” she writes.
This, she writes later.
When she is further along in her grieving.
In the beginning, there is less room for poetic reflection:
“She wept quiet tears and watched over him till dawn; cutting through the wonder, an intuition was born during that long night’s watch that he would be her wound, she would have to battle to keep him with her, to defend him against the worst of all enemies.”
The book is divided into three sections: “The Cry” (told in the first person, her son “he”), “Life (in which her son is addressed directly, in the second person, “you”), and “His Voice” (in which she imagines his voice speaking directly, in the first person, “I”),
She asks: “What greater mourning is there than for a child?”
And she marvels at the irony that her own father has had to bear this same loss, not only for her child – his grandchild – but others as well.
“Such a horrible thing to acknowledge, Papa, leading inexorably to hell. Was this what you felt seeing your daughter Céline succumb to firewater, and your sons, Michel, Lionel and André skirt the same abyss, only to be saved in extremis?”
There is a lot of darkness in this story. Which also leaves room for some beautifully poetic bits. (Like: “Night is solitude’s sister.”)
But just as the narrative transforms and stretches, so that the lost boy comes to have more of a voice in the present than he does in the memories of a time when he was alive, so does his mother.
She works in and with her grief, and she transforms.
Along the way, she directly addresses this question of addiction, which plays a key role in her son’s death.
Harold Johnson’s Firewater states that one of every two deaths in indigenous communities is caused by alcohol. This novel’s characters back up his calculations.
“I apologize, niwâhkomakanak,” Johnson writes, “I am about to drag this filthy, stinking subject out into the light where everyone can see it. It is my hope that the light kills it. I am going to speak without being asked because no one else is speaking and the silence needs to be broken.”
Our mother in the narrative was compelled to write too. She explains that “…what I write, Papa, is everything inside me quaking with anger, helplessness, outrage. I write so as not to hate you.”
She writes herself away from victimhood. She writes herself – stories herself – into a position of power.
I believe this is what Harold Johnson suggests is necessary to break this devastating and repetitive cycle of alcohol and despair.
As a practicing lawyer, who has worked on the side of the defense and for the Crown, his style in this volume is clear and direct, his structure is deliberate and immaculate. You can practically see the outline numbers in the paragraphs.
This is tremendously helpful, because these are big ideas, explored in a very small number of pages. (Both books are under 200 pages long, with generous typefaces and margins.)
Johnson considers several models which attempt to explain the proliferation of addiction in indigenous territory but none of these offers a solution, not the Victim Model, the Grief and Trauma Model, the Medical Model, nor the Law Enforcement Model.
“Drinking is part of the colonial experience. Self-induced intoxication is self-induced colonization. By drinking, we participate in our own colonialization. We take all the negative ideas that kiciwamanawak brought here and we take them into ourselves. We are born again as the colonizer through the ceremony of drinking.”
And given that kiciwamanawak brought the alcohol and distributed it (even against the terms of the treaty signed in Saskatchewan, which is reproduced in the volume’s appendix). it only makes sense that a solution resides elsewhere, not with the kiciwamanawak.
Indigenous peoples must create their own solutions, depend upon no others to do so. Just as a single daughter cannot depend upon her forebears.
In Winter People, our narrator recognizes the patterns readily. “That reasoning is common to people caught up in an addiction and under the sway of a substance more powerful than their conscience; by lying to themselves, they’re free to continue their libations without a second thought.”
Because isn’t it always easier to continue with a broken system than to establish a new one? Isn’t it always easier to continue down a spiral than to step off to one side?
“Alcohol touches every part of our lives, whether we drink or not. We cannot separate ourselves from the problem. It touches us, no matter what we do. Even if we don’t drink, we have relatives who do, relatives who are suffering. Even if we don’t drink, we live in communities that are being destroyed by alcohol.”
Despite alcohol’s pervasiveness, both in and out of indigenous communities, it takes a deliberate gaze to identify the complex structures engaged in its proliferation.
What we see first is misery and dysfunction and violence.
One must look more closely to see that all of this drives the economy too.
Johnson writes: “Most of the infrastructure in our territory – the hospitals, police stations, the courts, and the jails – depend upon our continued suffering. If we refuse to suffer from alcohol, all those systems of control (the courts, police, and social services) will no longer have a purpose, and we can go back to living free, independent lives. And, maybe, if we are sober, we can imagine how to make our living from the land again.”
(Implicit here is the fact that if one culture is profiting from that infrastructure, at the expense of another culture’s vitality, that those who are profiting directly are not equally invested in changing the status quo. Both groups have a stake in making the change long-term, but the burden of loss would necessarily shift for a time, before the system could equalize.)
One can certainly read and appreciate Winter Child as a single reader; it is a beautiful meditation on loss and restoration.
Reading it alongside Firewater, one can read not only as a reader, but as a citizen.
This is how reading and writing can change the world.
But you already know that.