Rating 5 stars
The Break is set in the North End area of Winnipeg, Manitoba, an area with a large First Nations and Métis population. It tells the story of a family of Métis women and the abuse they experience and witness at the hands of First Nations, Métis and white men. It’s an incredible debut novel and worthy of the list of accolades at the front of the book.
I received it as part of my 2018 SantaThing selection.
The novel’s introduction provides an overview of the area known as The Break, where the book’s characters all live, and a description of the people who live there and the poverty they endure because of their indigenous heritage. It’s a stark introduction to the harm done by colonialism and the way it stretches through time.
The author Katharena Vermette is from North End and is herself descended from the Métis people. I hadn’t heard of the Métis before so looked them up and learned that they are a recognised indigenous people in Canada, the descendents of First Nations Canadians and early European settlers in Canada, usually French with some Scots and English. Their communities mainly developed during the fur trade, and most communities are found along the Red River in Manitoba and Minnesota, and in Saskatchewan, Montana and Michigan. I found useful histories on the Red River North Heritage site (warning: the page makes use of the offensive term ‘half-breed’) and the Canada’s First Peoples site.
The novel begins with the witnessing of a sexual assault and the reluctance of the white police officers sent to investigate to believe the Métis woman, Stella, who reports the crime. Vermette describes a shameful mix of misogyny and racism, with Stella disbelieved primarily because violence is a trademark of the people who live around The Break and because she’s the sleep-deprived mother of a young child who is probably hallucinating or crazy.
Starting with Stella, Vermette builds a picture of life on The Break through the lives of the women who live there. Each chapter is narrated by or told from the perspective of a single character, with links slowly growing between them. In part one, we meet seven characters, mostly members of the Charles/Traverse family: Stella, Emily, Phoenix, Louisa (Lou), Cheryl, Zegwan (Ziggy) and Tommy, one of the police officers who interview Stella. Paulina (Paul) joins the narrating of the story in part two and Flora, the matriarch of this extended family, in part four. The four parts to the novel are interspersed with observations by an unnamed narrator who is gradually revealed to be an absent character.
Emily is the daughter of Stella’s cousin Paulina. She’s 13 years old and has a crush on an older boy at school, Clayton. When he invites her to a party one day, there’s a sense of dread about what the outcome is going to be. Emily is too teenage in her excitement about the prospect of her first kiss. Clayton’s arrogance suggests he’s not going to be kind. The event witnessed by Stella has set the tenor of what life is like for women in this community.
Phoenix, a young woman who hides out at her uncle’s house, which is the hangout of other young women rendered skinny by their heroin addiction, has been in and out of juvenile detention and has no regular home. Through her, we learn a little more about Clayton. Through her we learn that not all violence is inflicted by men.
Lou is a social worker, Stella’s other cousin and Paul’s sister. When we meet her, her boyfriend has just left her. Vermette is telling us that, even when you are sorted enough to qualify as a social worker, your life can still be chaotic. Lou works with Rita, her mother’s best friend. She and her sister Paul both have relationships with First Nations men, which in Lou’s case brings with it feelings of inadequacy from being Métis and not First Nations.
Cheryl is Lou and Paul’s mother. She’s an artist who dwells on the loss of her sister Lorraine (Rain), Stella’s mother, and who worries overmuch about her mother, Flora’s fading memory.
Ziggy is Emily’s best friend and Rita’s daughter. She’s trying her best to keep out of trouble and not go down the road expected for kids like her.
Tommy is a surprise. He’s introduced as being white, when he interviews Stella, but we learn that he’s Métis, too. And his senior partner doesn’t like it. We also learn about the casual racism he encounters within his relationship with his white fiancée and how he covers over the way it makes him feel.
Through the Charles/Traverse family, Vermette shows that continuity in the Métis community travels along the maternal line. Men come and go, taking responsibility for each family they start for as long as it suits them, tied more, it appears, to a sense of responsibility for themselves. This makes for a pretty toxic environment for the women, one which they survive through sheer bloody-minded determination. They are strong because they have to be. They cover over their need for comfort and support as though it’s a weakness.
The book made me reflect on a lot of things. For once I’m not going to share those reflections on societal power structures, the difference between the life experiences of the poor and working class compared with those of the wealthy and privileged, whether monogamy is a learned behaviour that not everyone can be bothered to learn and that’s only seen as problematic by society when those who don’t want to commit to life with one partner are from the disadvantaged end of the social spectrum, and why we’re all so hung up about being single, because the subject matter of the novel is so harrowing as to make my thoughts seem trite. Despite having an excess of opinions on the world, I don’t really know that much outside of my own personal experience. But I do know is that life is hard for most people, and it’s especially hard if you’re a woman of colour trying to exist in a white, male-favouring world that labels you in order to take away your individuality, that disbelieves you by default, and that demonstrates its power in violent and abusive ways.
At the moment that the result of the violent act witnessed by Stella was revealed in the story, my heart almost stopped. When the same violent act is portrayed from the perspective of its victim, I wanted to cry. Vermette doesn’t go into gruesome detail but instead shares just enough information so that the reader has the space for a personal reaction. Even if violence of the type described in the novel hasn’t happened to them, I’d say that for most women it won’t be difficult to put themselves in the survivor’s place, to feel what she feels.
Vermette very gradually plays her hand in the telling of this tale, slowly revealing the hidden connections between the main characters and how tragic this tragedy truly is. There are many different routes that could have been taken by the people involved, many different choices made that seem unconnected but that all weave together into this specific outcome. I felt for everyone involved, which is quite an achievement on Vermette’s part in not demonising or caricaturing. There are reasons for everything, and sometimes those reasons stretch back years, sometimes they stretch back centuries.
It’s apparent that Vermette is also a poet and a filmmaker from the descriptiveness of her prose. She captures a landscape and environment that I have no experience of through its sounds and smells as well as its physicality, in a way that brought it to life for me. This was something else that made reading such a difficult subject an enjoyable experience. It seems such a strange thing to say about a book that covers domestic abuse, rape, gang culture and drug addiction, but I really did enjoy reading it. I hope, as the quote from Margaret Atwood on the cover suggests, that Vermette will go far. I look forward to her next novel.