Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Reason You Walk by Wab Kinew

This was a difficult but important book to read - I think every Canadian should read it to gain greater understanding of our Aboriginal population.  Kinew is the son of a residential school survivor.  His book is really the story of his father, the survivor.  While it covers the period of his father's childhood, adulthood and beyond, the focus is on the relationship the men develop in the year leading up to his father's death from cancer.

Kinew's father, Tobasonakwut or Ndede (Ojibwe for my father), was plucked from his parent's home at the age of five.  He was forced into a residential school where he was emotionally, physically and sexually abused by both nuns and priests.  The leaders of the school took seriously their goal of beating the Indian out of these children.  Ndede told horrific stories of a friend who was beaten to death while the priests looked on, or being beaten for not kneeling at his father's grave (the Ojibwe tradition is to stand rather than kneel).  Miraculously, after a bout with drinking and fighting, Ndede stayed away from alcohol and focused on his education.  He also had three children from a first failed relationship.  Unfortunately his anger and inability to show love continued - and one of these children committed suicide.  A second was killed young in a car accident.

While in Toronto, Ndede met the woman who would become Kinew's mother, an upper middle class white woman whose open minded family accepted him better than most might have.  She moved to a reserve and then Winnipeg with him and together they had two children, Kinew and his sister, Shawon.  He did stray one more time and had another daughter, but remained married to Kinew's mother until his death.

Kinew himself struggled with alcoholism and fighting in his twenties but pulled himself together for his sons - and became a very successful journalist.  But his honest account of his family life showed how the residential schools have a lasting effect on generations of families.  Children taken from their homes do not have role models for parenting, and are angry and have been abused.  They thus have difficulties showing love and raising their own children - who then, sadly, can carry that experience to the next generation.

Kinew describes incredible native traditions (especially the sundance) which he shares in with his father and other family members.  He also captures the paradox of his father's continuing interest in the Catholic traditions - there are amazing scenes of his father giving the Pope two Eagle feathers - which the Pope accepted and Ndede took as a sign of reconciliation; and a ceremony where he adopts the Archbishop of Winnipeg as his brother.  Though the most poignant scene was his forgiveness of the Archbishop on his death bed.

One of my favourite stories was a legacy Kinew has left for all Canadians - when he was a young journalist at CBC Winnipeg, the ethics committee sent a memo saying residential school survivors should not be called survivors as they did not fit the definition.  Instead they should be called "former students".  Kinew sent a memo reasoning with the ethics committee - saying in fact they did fit the definition and, moreover, it would do a disservice to merely call them students which in future generations would convey the wrong message.  He was initially rejected and threatened to quit his position over it, but ultimately with the support of more senior reporters successfully changed the CBC's official position on the use of the word survivor.

While occasionally the writing style was hard to follow - I sometimes forgot who various players were and there were a lot of Ojibwe expressions which are explained but are difficult words to parse for non-Ojibwe speakers - this did not detract from the readability of the book and, as I said above, I think this is a really important book to read too.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Niko by Dimitri Nasrallah

Though I had ordered this book from the library some time ago, I almost didn't read it since I have read so many refugee stories lately and I wasn't sure I felt like another one.  But I'm glad I decided to go through with it.  The story was written in a very different style than the others.  Firstly, it was written from several points of view - Niko, his father, his aunt and uncle...  Moreover, when the book begins Niko is only about 6 years old so we see the action (particularly the Lebanese civil war and the death of his mother) from the perspective of a child.

After Niko's mother is killed by a car bomb and his father's store is also destroyed, Niko and his father flee Lebanon.  Unfortunately they don't have a very well developed plan and literally drift from Cyprus, to a Greek island to Athens.  When his money begins to run out and the father is unable to renew his passport (it is never totally clear whether this is because of the turmoil in Lebanon or because he is a Palestinian refugee rather than a Lebanese citizen), he sends Niko to Montreal to live with an aunt and uncle who he has never met.  The aunt is his mother's estranged sister, married to a much older man who was her father's employer.

The narrative continues for the next decade or so as Niko is  unable to fit in with his new family and peers in Canada as he holds back a bit in the hopes this is temporary and he will be reunited with his family.  We also see his father struggle to make something of himself before he can get to Niko - he works odd jobs on ships from Marseilles and Libya and eventually ends up in Chile.  But fate intervenes and he is unable to connect with his son for years.

I think this was so interesting as it shows the lengths a father will go to in order to improve his son's life, but how his efforts are at least part in vain because his son feels abandoned by the one person he has come to count on.  It also shows yet again how hard it is to establish oneself in a new country when the comfortable life you used to know is shattered by war.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The One Hundred Year Walk - An Armenian Odyssey by Dawn Anahid MacKeen

I loved this book - and it was so enlightening.  I knew a little bit about the Armenian genocide, but this book really brought it to life - in all its horror.

First of all I can't say enough about how well the format of the book worked.  The author, a journalist, is encouraged by her mother to tell her grandfather's story.  While she vaguely remembers her grandfather, and grew up hearing her mother's stories about his survival of the genocide, she is not convinced to take on the project until she finds her grandfather's journals.  At first she is missing the most crucial years of the genocide, but after much searching they are found in her uncle's garage.  She then works with her mother and her mother's friends and relatives to translate them from Armenian to English.  She also studies everything she can find about the genocide (which is less than she would have hoped).  Armed with this historical information, she retraces the route her grandfather was forced to walk when the Turks led the Armenians on a death march during World War I.  The chapters of the book alternate between Dawn's quest and that of her grandfather.  And she had enough information to convincingly write her grandfather's chapters in the first person from his perspective.

Dawn's grandfather, Stepan, was a courier in Adabazar, a town in the Ottoman Empire not far from Constantinople.  The town had a large, vibrant Armenian population prior to its being swept up in a mass government deportation.  Stepan himself is drafted into an army work gang which is first overworked and underfed clearing roads and railway lines.  Eventually they are just led on a long march through the desert - and Stepan gradually comes to the realization that they are being led to their deaths.  At the same time his family is deported to a refugee camp in a place called Chai and are miraculously able to stick together and stay there until the end of the war.

Stepan survives through a combination of incredible will and ingenuity, bonds with fellow residents of Adabazar who he meets along the way and, at times, just plain luck.  He escapes more than once, only to be returned to his doomed march though makes his final escape with the assistance of an Arab sheik in what is present-day Syria.  He works as his assistant under the sheik's protection until it is relatively safe for him to return to Anatolia to reunite with his family.

Dawn realizes her grandfather's strength when she is unable to cope with the walks he used to take as a courier and has trouble crossing the desert in a car with provisions.  She is able to locate the descendants of the sheik who saved her grandfather's life and is greeted by 300 of them - where she is able to convey her family's thanks.

The description of the tortuous conditions the Armenians suffered are powerful; made more so by the fact that the current Turkish government still does not acknowledge the "Armenian issue" as an act of genocide.  In fact, Dawn felt compelled to hide the true purpose of her visit to Turkey for fear of agitating the authorities.  To this day the US has also feared calling the event a genocide - even though Dawn quotes from communiques from the US Ambassador at the time pleading with his government to intervene (he eventually resigns from his post as he finds it too hard to deal with).  There are also interesting reports from German soldiers which make their way to the rest of the world but result in limited action - interesting because Germany was an ally of Turkey at the time and because similar reports coming out of Germany would be similarly ignored only a few decades later.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to gain insight into an ugly era in human history - but told from a very human perspective.