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book review

As Canadians hear one grim story after another about the poverty, neglect and violence that affect so many indigenous lives in this country, books such as this one, by Globe and Mail reporter Joe Friesen, are essential to helping understand how – in a rich and privileged country – this can happen.

The Ballad of Danny Wolfe is Friesen's riveting biography of one of Canada's most notorious outlaws, a man who, for several years, led the Indian Posse, a violent street gang he helped establish in Western Canada. Yet the book leaves the reader on Wolfe's side, hoping that with each turn of the page his luck will finally change. And that's because it's difficult to dislike Danny Wolfe.

Born in Regina in 1976 to Susan Creeley, the daughter of a Cree chief of her home reserve, Danny Wolfe and his brother Richard were basically left to raise themselves. Creeley was an alcoholic and a survivor of two brutal residential schools in Saskatchewan where sexual abuse was the norm. She was only six years old when she was sent away to the first school, and the story of her education, as Friesen tells it, and her inability, years later, to understand how to be a mother to her little boys, is heartbreaking. (One of the things that makes Friesen's book so powerful is the extraordinary access he had to Wolfe's family and friends, doctors and psychologists, police and other gang members, as well as letters and prison records.)

In one of Creeley's interviews with Friesen, she describes a time when her sons were running after her on the street – and she walked away, assuming someone else, maybe her sister, would take care of them. "They'll fend for themselves," she decided. She told Friesen she didn't look back to see if her sister took the boys; she went to a party instead and got drunk.

"I didn't give a shit," she said. "I did that because I didn't have love in my heart and I didn't have parenting skills. I lost all those things in the residential schools."

Not surprisingly, by the time Creeley's boys were in their mid-teens they had become car thieves and drug peddlers. Group homes and prisons were already part of their experience. When he was 19, Richard robbed and shot a pizza delivery driver, a crime for which he was convicted after friends testified against him. Richard ended up in Manitoba's Stony Mountain Penitentiary, a federal prison, with a sentence of nearly 20 years; when Danny found out how his brother had been caught, he threatened the people who had fingered his brother and ended up in Stony Mountain himself.

Despite the fact the brothers were jailed in the same prison, they were denied the chance to see each other. Wolfe was considered such a menace – he repeatedly tried to escape – that he was transferred to the federal penitentiary in Prince Albert, Sask., and then, in 2001, because of the disruptions he caused there, was moved again, this time to a high-security federal prison in Renous, N.B., – far away from any family or friends who might visit him.

After serving about six months in Renous, and then various prisons in Quebec, Wolfe was released and shipped back to Saskatchewan. He didn't remain free for long, and was returned to Stony Mountain for violating his parole. There, he landed in further trouble for strangling another prisoner, a powerful gang leader who had decided Wolfe was an impediment in his quest to control the other inmates.

The book provides a raw portrait of what actually happens in prisons. Perhaps there will be readers who aren't interested in the minutiae of criminal gangs and the prison system, but for those who are keen to learn more, the book is packed with information about how the system works – both from the point of view of the police and prison guards and from criminals and their families.

Families, in fact, emerge as a core theme in Wolfe's story. Friesen describes Wolfe's futile efforts to connect with his father, Richard Sr., who had no interest in his son, and who boasted dozens of criminal convictions of his own.

Still, Wolfe had many people who loved him, and his tragic story, while not a pretty one by any means, will never be forgotten thanks to a brilliant job by his biographer.

Stevie Cameron's most recent book is On The Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver's Missing Women. She is currently working on a book about Kingston Penitentiary.