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This article was published 18/2/2011 (3868 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As Long as the Rivers Flow
By James Bartleman
Knopf, 272 pages, $30
This Ontario-set story is a generous fictional take on a gruesome topic.
For nearly a century, Canadian churches and governments removed native children from their families and relocated them far away in residential schools designed to teach them Christianity and white culture.
Some of the schools inflicted appalling neglect and sexual and physical abuse on the children. Although the last of these schools were closed three decades ago, their effects live on in the shattered lives of the people involved and their descendants.
Today the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is leading an effort to establish new relationships among those affected.
James Bartleman, who was Ontario's first aboriginal lieutenant-governor, writes as a kind of one-man truth and reconciliation commission, although he does not claim that role.
He asserts his motivation in the dedication of this novel to native youth who have taken their lives as a result of their families' experiences in residential schools.
Given these tragedies, the author's bias toward benevolence is remarkable. Whether abusers or victims, his characters retain or rediscover their nobility.
This is Bartleman's first novel, although at 72 he has written four non-fiction books based on his youth in a rural slum in Toronto's cottage country and on his career as a diplomat.
In particular, Raisin Wine: A Boyhood in a Different Muskoka, manifests the magnanimous attitude that pervades this novel.
Sweeping over five decades from 1956 to 2003, As Long as the Rivers Flow tells the story of Martha Whiteduck, scooped at age six from the Cat Lake reserve in Northern Ontario to spend 10 years at a residential school and freed only in summers to return to her increasingly alienated family.
The abuse begins as soon as she is pushed from a float plane and into the arms of an unsmiling creature draped in black.
"'Another wild one straight from the bush, I see,' the nun said. 'We'll soon tame her.'"
The vicious nuns are bad enough, but their boss, Father Lionel Antoine, is worse. He adds Martha to the group of girls he sexually abuses.
When she turns 12 he has no more use for her, but his actions blight her entire existence.
The results are harrowing if predictable: alcohol and drug abuse, unwanted pregnancies and the meanest life imaginable.
In Martha's community and on other reserves, unloved and neglected children cursed by the residential school legacy kill themselves. It is not until three 13-year-olds carry out a suicide pact that Martha's community comes together in a healing circle to begin its recovery.
The novel abounds with elements of native spirituality, from animals, trees and water to visions and dreams that the characters invest with the authority of the Creator.
Bartleman vividly invokes the Wendigo, a half-human, half-devil monster 10 times the size of a man, who terrifies Anishnaabe children around campfires and adults everywhere.
But there are many helpful creatures in the spirit world, too. Martha and the other characters just need to learn to listen to them.
To the degree that the characters, good or bad, native or non-native, embrace traditional aboriginal teachings, they learn to heal themselves and others.
If the novel's narration and dialogue occasionally decay into preaching, it is a small price to pay for such a vigorous affirmation of the resilience of the human spirit.
Duncan McMonagle teaches journalism at Red River College and writes the Information Tsunami blog at http://duncanmcm.blogspot.com