“holding each other up”

Reviewed by Paul Watkins

Katherena Vermette’s The Break is a devastatingly beautiful novel that depicts the bonds between the women of an extended Indigenous family. With warp and weft, Vermette weaves together the voices of numerous intergenerational women to tell their personal stories as they deal with the enduring after-effects of trauma. The prose is sparse, yet dense (“Stella blinks a tear”), as the narrative takes a bare-knuckles approach to cut a jagged truth. Like her stunning poetic debut, North End Love Songs (2012), The Break deftly crafts Vermette’s complex relationship to Winnipeg’s North End. A surface reading concerns the mystery surrounding the sexual assault of a thirteen-year-old Métis girl vis-à-vis the police procedural that unfolds as a result of the crime: “Aboriginal female. Blood loss. Signs of sexual assault.” But the novel is far more complex than this, using numerous viewpoints to reveal the complicated sociopolitical conditions that produce violence and racism, and that cause harm to people, especially women, in Indigenous communities.

In the first chapter, Stella, a Métis mother, witnesses what appears to be a violent crime across the street from her house on McPhillips Street in an area called the Break. Attending to her crying children, she feels unable to do more than call the police, who arrive and question her as a reliable witness. Stella is one of ten speaking voices (as well as that of a dead woman), nine of whom are (mostly related) women. The speaking voice and narrative tense shift between first- and third-person each chapter, and we learn how everyone is ineluctably entwined. At times I wanted to be in the head of a single character longer, and for the first hundred-plus pages I found myself constantly checking the family tree Vermette provides, eventually giving myself over to the story. Through the various voices of these women, and a male Métis police officer named Tommy, we realize that life, like the truth of the mystery unfolding, is complex and often messy.

At the heart of the novel are the ways in which the various women remain resilient to being broken; it is also, in the full fleshing out of their characters and humanity, a story about the pain and immobility that brokenness causes. The Break is a piece of land that “cuts through every avenue from Selkirk to Leila,” but it is also the figurative space where pain breaks through: “She can’t open her mouth anymore—whenever she does, strange sounds come out, guttural cries from some place she doesn’t open up anymore.” As Lou, a social worker dealing with the sudden departure of her boyfriend, states, “We have all been broken in one way or another.” In a less elegant but no less true way, Paulina blurts out, “We’re so fucked,” which later becomes, “We’re fucked up but not fucked.” Cheryl, an artist in mourning, echoes this sentiment, asking, “They’re already so broken, could they even break any more?” While this breaking and eventual healing centre primarily on the novel’s women, the inclusion of the sole male narrative voice—officer Tommy’s—drives home some of the systemic issues that perpetuate cycles of violence.

Without being too overt, Vermette puts the focus on the social issues that affect Indigenous communities, especially in places like Winnipeg. Gradually we learn that the person who committed the crime is an outcome of their environment. Those who come from aggrieved communities with little power often resort to violence as a way to attain power: “It’s a power thing. Rape is about power.” And yet, nowhere is the display of power more evident than in the interactions between the police officers and the various women. Rather than feeling like a classic whodunit, the novel resembles real-life investigations involving missing or murdered Indigenous women. The white officer in the text, Christie, is the flattest character in the novel because his blatant racism makes him predictable. He sees his partner, Tommy, as the rare good “May-tee”: “It’s not like I think of you like you’re those Nates out there or anything. … You’re different. I mean, you’re not that different but you’re some different. You’re a good kid.” Christie’s (seemingly polite) racism is revealing, as it speaks to his lack of understanding of Indigenous realities, identities, and nationhood.

The aforementioned are carefully negotiated in the text from the complex position of the “city half-breed” (Lou’s words) and the governmental—Eurocentric—policies that define an Indigenous person’s relation to their community. The novel even deals with the current hot topic of blood quantum, discussing “how it was the white people who made a big deal about how much Indian you were, but Indians never cared as much. They welcomed all their family into the family, even if you were only half the same colour as them.” In this way the novel offers important lessons for settlers—like myself—about the need for Indigenous people to define how they think about community, identity, and belonging without governmental and/or settler intervention. Thus, in a very powerful way, the healing that takes place in the novel, especially in the ceremony at the end, is about resurgence and decolonization.

While I’ve focused on some of the bleaker aspects of the novel, it is also full of hope, humanity, humour, and non-stereotypical, powerful women. An epigraph at the beginning from Alice Walker is revealing: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Gradually, “[a]ll these women holding each other up” recognize they have tremendous power to make changes in their lives, however small. The Break is an important work of cultural listening, and it is important that settlers, like myself, seriously engage with the work. By giving up old visions of privilege and settler attitudes, healing can start to take place. That means truly honouring and respecting Indigenous people, especially women, and providing adequate resources (including stolen land) so that Indigenous resurgence and intergenerational healing can happen.

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