Legacy of the Bear's Lip
- Ruby Wiebe (Author) and Yvonne Johnson (Author)
Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Heather Hodgson
Stolen Life is the story of Yvonne Johnson’s life and of how she came to be "the only Native woman in Canada serving a twenty-five-year sentence for first-degree murder." Yvonne was born to a Cree mother and a Norwegian father. Her parents and siblings were all victims of poverty, addiction, and various forms of abuse. Yvonne’s childhood, the years she spent on skid row in Winnipeg, and the events that occurred on the night of September 14th, 1989, are horrific. Yet the story is hard to put down because it engenders in the reader a faint hope that Yvonne will find a way to redeem what she has endured. That hope keeps one reading when, alas, the worst is yet to come. And because of the way Wiebe and Johnson present the facts, readers are left to judge what story they will believe. In sharp contrast to traditional postures of disengagement, readers of this book are engaged from the start. There may be disagreement among readers about whom to believe, but few will be unmoved by Yvonne’s story.
She was born with three apparent strikes against her: she is Cree; she is a woman; and she has a cleft palate. Because she could not speak when she was a little girl, she became a target for abuse: raped by a stranger before she reached grade four, she was also raped by her grandfather and her father. It was her younger brother Leon, however, who learned how to "do it right" from the Johnsons’ male babysitter. Yvonne’s older brother, Earl, her only protector, left her feeling even more alone when he died in suspicious circumstances, in jail. Earl’s death seemed to cause the Johnson family to fall apart and her parents separated. Out of pity for her father, Yvonne chose to stay with him.
Her subsequent early adult years on skid row were also marked by poverty, violence, alcohol, and rape. Even the man who fathered her children and gave her some happiness turned out to be an alcoholic. But it was the trauma of what she endured earlier in her life, the authors suggest, that is likely to have triggered Yvonne’s participation in a murder on September 14th, 1989. That night, after a drunken binge, she was convinced that a man she barely knew was a child molester. She is alleged to have played the most crucial role in his death.
The question arising out of the facts as presented concerns the extent of Yvonne’s role in the murder. Readers are left with the disconcerting question of whom to believe, since the four accused tell different stories. There are questions about the credibility of witnesses, which Wiebe suggests may have contributed to a miscarriage of justice in Yvonne’s case. In the end, the all-white jury of nine men and three women gave her the most severe sentence possible.
The book is a mix of autobiography, biography, and investigative journalism. It begins with Wiebe’s preface and ends, after sixteen chapters, with an epilogue. Much has been excerpted from the seventeen prison notebooks and journals that contain Yvonne’s memories, and the gaps are filled in with information from police interviews, from court transcripts and from research conducted by Wiebe.
A historical context sheds some light on Yvonne’s story. Natives in Canada have the highest statistics for family breakdown, violence, substance abuse, accidents, and, most saliently, incarceration. These statistics are the fulfillment of the fears the Cree Chief Big Bear, Yvonne’s great-great-grandfather, had for his people in the aftermath of colonization.
It was reported in 1999 that "a female Indian is 131 times as likely to be admitted to a provincial jail than a non-native." Prisons seem to have become the finishing school for Natives, many of whom have also experienced residential school. Many Native people, particularly Native women, may identify with aspects of Stolen Life. The book has social significance: it generates greater understanding about the tragic predicament of many Natives in Canada. While Native readers may find Yvonne’s story disturbingly familiar, they should also be inspired by her courage. Others may get realistic first-hand access to the sources of this widespread despair. Yvonne Johnson, by redeeming her horrific life through the telling of her story, may help those who are caught in similar circumstances. By some miracle of grace, she has forgiven those who hurt her so deeply.
Suffering never feels like a gift, until we emerge from it to realize how it can put life into perspective. Yvonne’s turning around of the suffering caused by her cleft palate is revealed in a letter she wrote to Wiebe in 1998: "A bear always has a fold in her upper lip. My grandma, I, my eldest child, have the gift and the legacy of the bear so strong, we have the Bear’s lip." Now she uses her early suffering to strengthen her cultural foundation and her spirituality. Now she understands that "to have been born imperfect [is] a sign of specialness." Her disability has given Yvonne other resources. She remembers an old man who had this knowledge, and who told her that "a child with a hare-shorn lip was a child whose soul was still in touch with the spirit world." This knowledge has become the salve she needed to begin to heal herself.
The other major voice in Stolen Life is that of Rudy Wiebe. His prominence as first author is an aspect of the book that cannot go unmentioned. He states that the story is "largely" from Yvonne’s "seventeen black prison notebooks, her letters, her comments on official records and documents, [as well as] her statements to police." While Wiebe does elaborate aspects of Yvonne’s story that she could not, he describes her as having "a natural gift of language," and he claims to have witnessed "her powers of writing ... expand during her time in prison." Wiebe further emphasizes the quality of her earliest writing: "she has a profound ability to capture an astute perception with words." All of this gives rise to a question that will not surprise Wiebe: should he be first author in a time when appropriation of voice is still such a sensitive issue? He does not provide a clear explanation anywhere in the text about how it was decided he would be first author. Furthermore, if Yvonne’s writing is so powerful, why did he "standardize" her prose as he acknowledges he has done? That word’s implicit indifference to a difference of voice, even from such a compassionate figure as Wiebe, made me shudder. Indeed, Yvonne Johnson should be grateful to Wiebe for editing, shaping and completing the story she had "largely" already written. Stolen Life is still Yvonne’s story, however, in spite of Wiebe’s assertion that "no story is ever only yours alone." I found it jarring to encounter Wiebe’s picturesque musings about the landscape insinuated into the fabric of Yvonne’s tragedy. She is not without a perspective on this matter, and states that Stolen Life may not "be only my story—but it is mine." Can’t a major figure of Canadian literature offer a gift without taking?
I was not able to speak with Yvonne at the Ohci Okimaw Healing Lodge, as she did not respond to my letter requesting a visit. I still wonder if she is protective of the man she asked to help her to write her book. Either way, we should be grateful to Yvonne Johnson and Rudy Wiebe for the collaboration that enabled Yvonne’s story to be told.
Self-determination for First Nations people takes on different forms in different contexts. In writing, the use of phrases such as "coming to voice" and "agency" resonate. A significant writer first to break ground in this way was Maria Campbell, and, since the publication of her book Halfbreed, we have witnessed numerous others follow suit. Johnson and Wiebe’s Stolen Life is an important addition to this literary coming to voice. If exposing the poison is essential to healing, as the Cree playwright and novelist Tomson Highway believes, then this exposure is one very important use of writing.
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Books reviewed: Great Heart: The History of a Labrador Adventure by James West Davidson and John Rugge and Light for a Cold Land: Lawren Harris's Work and Life--An Interpretation by Peter Larisey
- Vigour and Voice by Tanis Macdonald
Books reviewed: From Old Woman to Older Woman: Contemporary Culture and Women's Narratives by Sally Chivers and Voices Made Flesh: Performing Women's Autobiography by M. Heather Carver, Lynn C. Miller, and Jacqueline Taylor
- First Nations Identity by Jennifer Kramer
Books reviewed: The Star-Man and Other Tales by Jonas George (Wah-sa-ghe-zik) and Basil H. Johnston, Privileging the Past: Reconstructing History in Northwest Coast Art by Judith Ostrowitz, The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art by Allan J. Rayan, What's the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? by Richard Van Camp and George Littlechild, and Mythic Beings: Spirit of the Northwest Coast by Gary Wyatt
- Life-Writing by Stella Algoo-Baksh
Books reviewed: Lambsquarters: Scenes from a Handmade Life by Barbara McClean and Invisible Shadows: A Black Woman's Life in Nova Scotia by Verna Thomas
MLA: Hodgson, Heather. Legacy of the Bear's Lip. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #167 (Winter 2000), First Nations Writing. (pg. 154 - 156)
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