'To the memory of the Native youth who have taken their lives as a result of the Indian residential school experiences of their parents and of the parents of their parents before them." With these words, James Bartleman dedicates his debut novel As Long as the Rivers Flow, which explores the consequences of Canada's residential school system through several generations. It is a story that we all need to hear.
In 1962, Martha is 6 when a float plane comes to her home in the Cat Lake First Nation in northern Ontario, and takes her away to the school on James Bay where she is to spend the next 10 years of her life. There she is abused by nuns - including a First Nations nun who is herself a victim of the residential school system - and sexually abused by a priest.
Back at home in her late teens and twenties, Martha succumbs to alcoholism, her son is apprehended and her daughter is taken in by Martha's mother when Martha leaves to rebuild her life in the big city. A dozen years later, Martha's mother's death draws Martha back to Cat Lake, where the abuses, now many years in the past, surface, and her life unravels again.
Many elements are combined into one tale, among them a time span nearing half a century, so parts of Martha's life get short shrift, and I was not able to enter into her experience as deeply as I would have liked. I grew frustrated several times with the use of coincidence as a plot device, and with a number of typographical errors that should have been corrected during the editorial process.
The grand scope of the story is essential, however, because it allows us to see cause and effect across generations. In the short, three-part prologue, a 47-year-old Martha wakens from a nightmare in which she is back at school in the clutches of the priest; her daughter wakes from a dream in which the spirits of her friends visit her, furious that she has not killed herself on her 13th birthday as promised; and Father Antoine, the long-ago abuser, prepares for mass, comfortable in the belief that those girls have long forgotten what he did to them. The rest of the book demonstrates how wrong he is, how dreadful his legacy.
Balancing the horror of the abuse and its consequences are the legends of Gitche and Madji Manitou and the Wendigo, traditional tales told, ironically, on Treaty Day, the day each year when the Indian agent visits the reserve to hand out the money promised the people many years before, when the treaty was signed. Six-year-old Martha will never forget "the Wendigo … a half-human, half-devil monster at least ten times the size of a man, with breath that reeks of human flesh." The legendary figures appear over and over again, helping Martha to survive the horrors that she faces and to maintain her connection to her home, her family and her heritage even during the decades she spends away.
A river also winds its way through the story. As the chief says to the Indian Agent on Treaty Day, "We don't ever want it to be forgotten that our grandfathers were promised by the white man that the treaty would last for as long as the rivers flow, the sun shines, and grass grows." And though the white man does not honour the spirit of the treaty, the river flows on, offering rescue at the final hour to one who is lost.
When telling a story of this nature, it is easy to create villains. A child dies from abuse in this book, as many children did and do. Terrible beatings take place. The sexual abuse goes on for decades, doing harm beyond measure. And because all the children from Cat Lake are sent to the same school, many, many of the women - the mothers whose despairing children later enter suicide pacts - were abused by the same man.
Bartleman is not explicit about the abuse itself - a wise choice, respectful of all who have experienced it - but he takes us inside the abuser. We revile him, but we also are allowed to know him. This does not help us to excuse the man. What he does is inexcusable. But the author will not let readers slip free of the knowledge that he is a human being like us, that the acts of men like Father Antoine spring from ignorance, selfishness, greed, weakness, all things each of us must battle in ourselves. He also reminds us that people like Father Antoine cannot act without those who stand by, who deliver children into their hands, who close their eyes.
As I read, I feared where the story would take me; it was hard to imagine how a tale of such sweeping devastation could conclude with hope without making light of suffering. I will say only that Bartleman finds this hope. For me, the novel's greatest strength is in its resolution, which makes light of nothing, but, through a traditional healing circle, gives everyone a way forward.
Currently, we as a nation are engaged in a process of healing through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Perhaps the lessons in the stories that residential school survivors are now sharing will reach all of us and be part of our own paths forward.
Maggie de Vries is the author of Missing Sarah: a Memoir of Loss, about her sister Sarah, one of Vancouver's missing women.
ABOUT JAMES BARTLEMAN
James Bartleman is a member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation. From 2002 to 2007, he served as the 27th Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario.
Before that, he spent more than 35 years in the Canadian diplomatic service.
He is the author of two memoirs: Out of Muskoka and Raisin Wine.