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Dark look at rez life a must-read for Manitobans

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/11/2014 (1003 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Someone you love is dead. And you? You have to keep living.

The grinding ache of loss gets authentic, articulate expression in The Evolution of Alice, graphic novelist David Alexander Robertson's first "words only" novel.

Not that his characters would say it that way. In the easygoing language of everyday Manitobans, Robertson's cast of damaged people try to heal and help in the face of mortality.

Tragedy crashes into the rez trailer home where Alice is rebuilding life with her three daughters, her abusive partner temporarily secure in the Stony Mountain penitentiary. Withdrawing into a hollow ache, she faces a steep, seemingly impossible climb back to wholeness.

If that's an often-told story, it gets a fresh face here, thanks to the unpretentious, engaging voices the Winnipeg writer offers, which range from close friends to strangers breezing by scenes of personal wretchedness. The intersecting vignettes Robertson pulls in add a nice variety of perspectives for the reader to enjoy, even as they give a rounded vision of dealing with death.

Then there's the spooky intervention of the supernatural. Ghosts and spirits are just out of eyesight in the lives of Robertson's characters, hanging back in a playful darkness. Their motives and origins are questionable; the power of transformation they offer, tantalizing.

In these sections Robertson's skill with descriptive visual language is at its best. The mortal world is rendered in vivid, colour-loaded language (particularly the field stretching behind Alice's home), and while spiritual intrusions receive the same treatment, they're honed down to a few chilling phrases that leave room for your imagination to stretch.

When Mistapew picks up a sleeping teenager and carries her into a flood, for example, "the water was black all around because the stars were shy that night, except for the reflection of the moon overhead which touched the water near where they stood, the soft but generous white glow rippling like a flag in a delicate breeze."

That excerpt is drawn from a chapter where two teens contemplate taking their own lives; a response to a wave of suicides in their community. It's the darkest, most urgent instance of something else that hits the reader when turning the pages of The Evolution of Alice: this book matters to our province.

So many Manitobans have, like a character in an early chapter, only sped by reserves on the highway. Inviting us into a rich community of characters, which stretches deeper than the headlines most of us associate with reserve life, Robertson is doing a service to everyone who calls Manitoba home.

And crafting an engaging story of one family's recovery from loss -- at a time when indigenous peoples are increasingly flexing political, economic and cultural muscle in this country -- is a gift for everyone hoping for a better future for our divided country.

Easy to read if emotionally exhausting, The Evolution of Alice cements Robertson's well-earned reputation as a great Manitoba storyteller in yet another form. Hopefully it will join Robertson's The Life of Helen Betty Osborne and his 7 Generations series on school curriculums.

It's a book every Manitoban should read.


Matthew TenBruggencate is a writer for CTV Winnipeg.


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Updated on Saturday, November 22, 2014 at 7:53 AM CST: Formatting.

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