I had read mixed reviews of A Grandmother Begins the Story by Michelle Porter. Many heralded it as a must-read for Canadians, a compliment often used for books about Indigenous people. But some complained it was difficult to follow because of the alternating perspectives. I found it a unique and compelling read as I really enjoyed the cornucopia of voices introduced throughout its 322 pages, but I can understand why this may turn off some readers too. I also loved its depiction of the afterlife, a topic that some books are brave enough to touch upon, but rarely with this kind of detail and imagination.

Plot Summary

The book progresses through five intertwining storylines from five different generations of Métis women; blood relations, but not a typical family. Carter is in her early twenties, with a toddler who currently lives with his Dad. She is contacted by a maternal grandmother she never knew before then who asks for her help to die. Allie is Carter’s mother, and trying to rebuild her relationship with Carter after giving her up for adoption when she was a young mother. Lucie is Allie’s mother and Carter’s grandmother, the woman who has asked Carter for a supply of pills so she can slip peacefully away in her sleep. Geneviève is Lucie’s mother and headed to rehab to dry out from her addiction to alcohol. Mamé is Geneviève’s mother and deceased, looking down upon her daughters and granddaughters from her home in the hereafter. We also hear from a bison named Dee who restlessly roams a fenced in area, desperate to reunite with the other bison who sired her calf Tell. In addition to this animal, there are a few short sections written from the perspective of the grasslands who hold up the bison, the old station wagon that Geneviève drives to rehab, and Geneviève’s two dogs who she leaves in a kennel while in treatment. No shortage of viewpoints in this novel!

My Thoughts

Métis culture is a Canadian-specific offshoot of Indigenous culture that was created when Indigenous women married the French men who colonized the land, and had families together. There are many Métis people in Canada now, and if you’re interested in reading more about it, I recommend this memoir as a great starting off point. There is a strong performative and musical thread that runs throughout Métis culture, which Geneviève represents and gains her strength from. We not only get Mamé’s perspective of what crossing over into the afterlife looks like, but when Geneviève is going through withdrawal, she meets her deceased sister Velma, who comes for visits in-between her fiddle performances in the afterlife (because apparently they do gigs up there too!). Playing the piano with her sister is a form of healing for Geneviève, reminding them both of their time as children, hanging around backstage when their parents performed. There are many dark memories that Geneviève is trying to forget through her drinking, including her experiences at residential school which are only briefly mentioned, but this book tends to focus more on the healing of these women, rather then the infliction of trauma that they’re escaping.

Porter is also a poet, which comes as no surprise when you read this book. The writing is descriptive, but the dialogue is still punchy and natural, so it never felt unbalanced or artificial. How does one write from the perspective of an old car? Porter nails these sections, anthropomorphizing these animals and objects into characters with thoughts, feelings, even a backstory! It took me a paragraph or two to realize what perspective I was reading from (or who was talking), but it quickly becomes obvious, and these sections lean towards the humorous – the car’s experience of being hotwired was particularly entertaining.

Despite the trauma each character is healing from, there is much laughter and lightness in this book, which speaks to the strength of these women. They may not cope in the ways we find acceptable, but they will cope. By inserting perspectives and elements of the natural world into these women’s stories, there’s a cyclical feeling of healing, especially with the reassuring depiction of the afterlife. Everything is connected in this novel, whether they like it or not, which is a message I not only appreciated, but can carry forward into my own life.

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