Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Break by Katherena Vermette

This is another one of those books about the indigenous experience that should be required reading for all Canadians.  It is not a historical book as many are, but is set in present day Winnipeg - in the seedier parts of the North End.  Most of the characters are members of the Metis community.

The strength of this book is in its characters - predominantly female, all remarkably resilient.  The chapters are written from a multitude of different perspectives which, by the end of the book, illuminate what happened on one fateful night.  The story starts with Stella - in the middle of the night she looks out her window and sees what she believes to be is a young girl getting raped in the snow.  She calls the police to alert them to the trouble - they take hours to arrive and assume she is exaggerating or mistaken and has only seen petty gang violence.

But as the story progresses we see what happened in the lead up to this event from the perspective of Stella's family, friends and the young police officer investigating.

The strength of the characters begins at the top with Flora, known as Kookom, the matriarch of the family.  At various times all of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren turn to her for comfort and support.  The other perspectives we see are her daughter, Cheryl, who is an artist trying to survive her split from her husband and the death of her sister (and Stella's mother).  She turns to alcohol, but also family and friends.

Cheryl has two daughters.  Lou is a social worker with two children whose long time boyfriend has just returned "home to the bush".  She tries hard to be tough and professional but even she breaks down in the face of the events surrounding the assault which Stella witnessed.  Paulina is her younger, softer, sister who has one daughter and is in a new relationship with a man who she desperately wants to trust.  Stella is their cousin.

We also hear from Cheryl's best friend, Rita, Paulina's daughter, Emily, the Metis police officer and Phoenix, a homeless teenager who has just been released from a youth detention centre.  By the end we understand the relationships between the characters, both in their pasts and in the present.  It's interesting that the only male who narrates a chapter is the police officer - and even he draws his strength from his mother.  If this sounds complicated it's partly because I don't want to give too much away.  I can tell you it is aided by a family tree at the front of the book which I referred to regularly.

I really recommend this book - to show how strength of character and family bonds, particularly between women, can help people cope with and survive terrible tragedy - and you are left with the hope that they will thrive rather than just survive.

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