For many of us, literature is a means of understanding a way of life of people different from us. In reading a book, we learn the hardships and difficulties of others whom we may or may not have contact in our day-to-day lives. There has been an interest with a lot of people in my circles trying to gain a better understanding of Indigenous people in our society.Katherena Vermette’s novel The Break gives us readers insights and something to start conversations to improve life for all peoples.
In the sixties, Indians started moving in, once Status Indians could leave reserves and many moved to the city. That was when the Europeans slowly started creeping out of the neighbourhood like a man sneaking away from a sleeping woman in the dark. Now there are so many Indians here, big families, good people, but also gangs, hookers, drug houses, and all these big, beautiful houses somehow sagging and tired like the old people who still live in them.
The area around the Break is slightly less poor than the rest, more working class, just enough to make the hard-working people who live there think that they are out of the core and free of that drama. There are more cars in driveways than on the other side of McPhillips. It’s a good neighbourhood but you can still see it, if you know what to look for. If you can see the houses with never-opened bed sheet covered windows. If you can see the cars that come late at night. park right in the middle of the Break, far away from any house, and stay only ten minutes or so before driving away again. My Stella can see it. I thought her how to look and be aware all the time. I don’t know if that was right or wrong, but she’s still alive so there has to be some good in it.
Vermette has given a detailed book here using a complex set of characters trying to deal with a violent and desperate situation. One evening, Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window and sees a violent attack on the Break (a field on an isolated strip of land outside her house.) She calls the police and a chain of events – which include thoughts, emotions, actions and frustrations – are documented through the book.
Phoenix falls up the snow-packed front stoop and jerks open the screen door. She knew it would be unlocked, but thought, in her last steps that it might not be, just this once. That would just be her luck, wouldn’t it? But nah, it’s open, so she can stumble into the warmth. Thank fuck.
Her uncle’s house smells like smokes, dope, and old food, but it’s great to her. And warm. Phoenix takes he hands out of her jacket sleeves, and rubs them together, blowing on them to help get the feeling back. They’re raw and red, but she keeps rubbing at them anyway.
Some skinny girl is passed out on the couch, and another is on the armchair. They look like they fell over in the middle of talking and no one bothered to move them or cover them up. One of them snores lightly, her face against her bare arm, drool dripping over an awful rose tattoo and track marks. Fuck. Phoenix can smell the booze from her, that ugly day-after stench. They look pretty rough, even passed out. Most people look so peaceful when they’re sleeping, but these girls just look a little less used up.
No one else is in sight. The house feels asleep. Phoenix hears music coming quietly from her uncle’s room so she knows he’s there. He can’t sleep without music playing, usually old school rock stuff. Aerosmith and AC/DC. Classics, he’ll say with a smack across the head if anyone ever tries to say no one listens to that shit anymore. Phoenix has always liked the music. It reminds her of him, of back when she was small and he was a good kid, before all these other people started hanging around him and he had to get hard.
She’s so fucking glad to be here.
The language Vermette is frank, bold and gritty at times. But it reflects the reality the story is set in. The language can also be tender and sad. Again reflecting the scene or an emotion. And while the whole narrative is somewhat complex, it is a great story illuminating an element of the human condition we may or may not be aware and creating empathy.
“PHOENIX ANNE STRANGER . . .”
Scott turns his radio down again, rubs his eyes, and tries to concentrate. He needs to get to sleep. He needs to text Hannah and tell her he’s still working. No, he just needs to get an actual good night’s sleep.
Christie looks straight ahead as they drive. Tommy can tell he’s annoyed and want to ge this over with. Tommy’s been leading him around for days. The sergeant was no help. He didn’t see anything linking this Monias guy to the assault. The numbered company turned out to be in the name of Angie Dumas, the skinny girl, Monias’s girlfriend and no one was home at her residence so Christie suggested the sister.
“What was her name? Settler?”
“Settee,” Tommy had said and looked up the address in his written notes. Pritchard Avenue.
They are going there now. But it is all starting to feel like a circle.
After they talked to the sergeant, Sunday night had descended on the northside as predicted. Tired drunk people fell out of tired drunk houses. There were only two domestics as if everyone was too tired to fight too hard. As if they were only going through the motions, passionless. Tommy had just pulled a large, handcuffed man into the squad car and looked back at the women left behind, standing impassively.
He shivers and wants a coffee. If he doesn’t find anything soon, they’ll just have to leave the case unresolved, and the words will become numbers. Emily will become Case 002-121869, never to be opened again. He thinks of the other girl, Zegwan. It means spring. He thinks of his language teacher again. His face was always on the veryge of a smile, a light smirk as Tommy tried to make his tongue wrap around the strange words.
Katherena Vermette has given the literary world a great bit of insight with her novel The Break. It is an emotional, gritty and complex novel but one that builds empathy and enlightenment about Indigenous people in our time. A great read and a great piece of literature.