Thursday, March 24, 2011

As Long as the Rivers Flow by James Bartleman

As Long as the Rivers Flow by James Bartleman flows Martha, a girl from Cat Lake First Nation in Northern Ontario who is forcefully taken away to a residential school at the age of six. At the school, she is not allowed to speak her native language and is physically abused and punished. The worst part is the sexual abuse inflicted on her for six years by the school's priest, a man with an attraction to little girls. When Martha finally returns to her reserve, she finds herself an outcast, barely able to speak her native language, not knowing how to live in the wilderness, and haunted by the memories of her abuse. Unprepared for parenthood, she gives birth to a boy named Spider only to have him taken away by Children's Aid to Toronto. As Martha begins to heal and eventually gives birth to a second child, Raven, she leaves her daughter with her mother when she decides she must head to Toronto to find Spider and bring him home so that the three of them can finally be a family.

Novels about the unique Native experience is something that is sorely lacking not only from my own reading but from literature in general. However after appreciating the insight into Native American culture that was present in Shadow Tag by Lousie Erdrich which I read quite recently, I jumped at the opportunity to read As Long as the Rivers Flow both to help eliminate some of my own ignorance and because as a book the topic was extremely interesting. The novel is a horrifying but important reminder of what the Canadian government did, the residential school system was a way to force assimilation of the Native population and the consequences of them are still present not only in the survivors but in their children. As Long as the Rivers Flow shows the transgenerational impact that such terrible experiences and abuse can have. Martha was never shown affection or told I love you, so she doesn't know how to do it for her own children. Raven and her friends live in households where they feel like an outsider and a burden, and Bartleman helps to explain why the suicide rates among Native teens is so high.

From a literary perspective, I did find a lot of the dialogue in the novel awkward to read. A lot of the story is also told in a very straight-forward manner and because of the large time span to be covered at times areas of the story are a bit rushed or neglected. I think that there is so much story in As Long as the Rivers Flow that Bartleman could have drawn it out slightly longer. There is also a very important coincidence in the story which seemed like a bit of a lazy way to draw the story to resolution. The ending itself felt slightly rushed and a bit too optimistic considering all the damage that had been done, but it does have an important message about hope and healing.

Despite these flaws, As Long as the Rivers Flow is a powerful and important story. Bartleman shows not only how large the impact of abuse can be but also how in a situation like Martha's, as well as the unfortunate reality for some of the children who attended such schools, it is not just one person who is responsible. One nun in particular knowingly leads Martha to be abused again and again and is disappointed when she responds poorly to it. Bartleman doesn't go into detail of the abuse itself, but it lurks like a dark demon throughout the story and Martha's life, something that will be there forever. Ultimately, As Long as the Rivers Flow isn't flawless as a novel, but it is part of an important dialogue about what happened to the children who attended these residential schools, as well as what can happen to their children if the abuse and horror is pushed aside and forgotten.

Release Date: February 15th, 2011
Pages: 272
: ARC From Publisher
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