Be omnivorous, don't just read one kind of book, read everything. - Richard Wagamese

Monday, November 7, 2011

Review: As Long As The Rivers Flow by James Bartleman

Publisher: Vintage Canada
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher

At the age of six years old, Martha boarded a float plane all alone and left for residential school. Frightened and traumatized by the float plane, her journey was just beginning, her screams were heard by no one. The moment she arrive at the residential school sincere affection would no longer be shown to her. Children were to obey or be physically abused. Her language was no longer to be spoken or severe consequences would ensue. Stripped of all her clothes, she was showered by the nuns and sprayed with lice powder. Martha was to assimilate, and she would have no say in the matter. She soon began to understand that she was powerless. When the priest took a liking to Martha, she was summoned by the nuns and forced to visit the priest for her “special lessons.” This continued until Martha became a teenager, and he lost interest.  Martha would attend residential school for ten years. Over the course of her education, Martha had moments of laughter and joy,  and she forgave the nuns when she realized that they were victims too, doing what they were told and taught not to questions their chain of command. In her final years of school, Martha appeared calm and resigned. She returned home and would be scolded for not trying to hang on to her language. Years of estrangement would take a toll on mother and daughter and Martha had a lot of resentment for her mother who refused to hear her stories.  Her father had passed on, and he remained a memory. Martha left school with a high school education, and emotional wounds so deep they would never fully heal. When the school closed its doors for good, the trauma had already been done. 

As Long as the Rivers Flow is a poignant, powerful read. Novels about the Native American experience is lacking from literature, and I jumped at the chance to read this one. As a Native American, and someone who has had family attend residential schools this book is close to my heart, and one that I’ve already begun to circle around my family. Many times stories are meant to help preserve historical facts and teach lessons. Bartleman does an amazing job portraying the Native experience in a straight forward literary manner. The book is not filled with many descriptions, it is more about storytelling. It reminds readers that this atrocity is not as far back as some are led to believe. The residential schools hurt more than just the children, many parents were left behind and didn’t know how to interact with their children when they came home for the summer months or when school was complete. Communication between the school and parents were lacking. Many times parents would learn that their child passed away when all the other children returned and their child did not. Children would learn their parents had died when they returned home. Children were forced to assimilate and leave behind their language, further distancing themselves from their parents. Many parents couldn’t bare to hear about the abuse in schools because they were powerless to stop it. 

The aftermath of residential schools has impacted generations of people and it is still a very relevant topic today. Children who were never shown affection have a hard time being affectionate towards their own children. Many students had no idea how to be parents themselves when the time came. Teenagers were sent home with an education, but no jobs on the reserve leaving them feel useless. Many parents who sent their children to the residential schools honestly thought that they were helping their children, the government promised better lives for the children and poor parents were given monetary compensation. Parents didn’t have much choice, and the monetary compensations were needed. 
I was very happy to read that James Bartleman was Ontario’s first Native Lieutenant-governor. His debut novel will remain on my list of recommendations. At times the story does feels rushed, but there is no denying that this is a great piece of literature. The theme is always the same, the idea of survival. I did learn some new things about my culture in this novel, and I rushed out to research the topics and discuss with my family. That always makes me feel appreciative, I’m never going to be finished learning about my culture. I do want to remind readers that it’s important to remember that not all Native children’s experiences were horrible, you will find some survivors who believe the experience was positive but these are few and far between. 

Thank you for reading my review, and I will step off my soapbox now. My university experience involved a lot of research on this topic. It is a topic that emotionally drains me but I know how important it is not to let the memory fade. 

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  1. When I saw the review I didn't think it'd be a good read but since then changed my tune. My World History professor mentioned the history of the U.as. wasn't always something to be pure and clean cut. Thanks for introducing me to this book.

  2. I love reading about Native Americans and this book sounds like it would be excellent. Thank you for the thoughtful review, I am adding it to my TBR list!

  3. I've been interested in this since seeing it in your Mailbox. Great review. Sounds like a really powerful read.

  4. Great review. I'm definitely adding this one to my list of books to read.

  5. Wow, this does sound like a powerful and haunting read, and one that really makes you think. I would love to read this book at some point, as I am not really all that aware of the Native American plight, and I think there is a lot here to learn. Great review today!

  6. Haven't read much about Native Americans and this sounds very emotional. I'll add this to my wishlist. Thanks for the review!

  7. That topic does sound heartrending - especially about the powerlessness that they felt in those situations.

  8. Fantastic review! Sounds like such a heartbreaking but important story.

  9. I've been wanting to read more about Native American myself...especially since my best friend is a full blooded NA. I'm always interested to know more about the people and the culture. My fave character is a NA as well (team Jacob)...LOL. This sounds like a great book to shed light on some things within the culture that I am totally unaware of. Nice review! Putting this one on the TBR list.

  10. Aww, this sounds like such a heartbreaking and powerful story! :( Since I live in Canada too, we learn a lot about residential schools in class and I've always thought of how awful it all is. This book sounds like it does an amazing job highlighting those things that need to be spotlit, and your review does an amazing job highlighting this BOOK!

    Thank you so much for the awesome and thoughtful review, Mrs. Q! I'm definitely adding this one to my TBR list! :)

  11. A book I should read, but also, I would get so sad, and so very angry.

  12. Great review! This definitely sounds like a book I would enjoy.

  13. This does sound like a powerful read and one I hadn't heard of before. I better check it out!

  14. Hi Jennifer,

    What a fantastic review of what sounds like an emotionally draining and troubling book, thank you for being so thorough, you gave a real and honest insight into the story.

    Obviously we have not had the same kind of issues with a 'native' population, here in the UK.

    However, the same rules would seem to apply in any institutionalised environment and having a friend who spent the formative teenage years of her life in various foster and childrens homes, her stories and memories are just as heartbreaking and raw, despite the fact she is now in her late 40s.

    She has always found it difficult to connect with her children and now grandchildren and the showing of any emotion is a rare thing indeed for her.

  15. Wonderful review, Jennifer! This seems to be a fascinating, powerful book from your description. For me, one of the things it shows is that uprooting a child from her/his own culture and sending the child to a modern school is not going to change anything immediately, and it is going to create only more problems in the child's family. Thanks for writing about this book. I will add this to my 'TBR' list.

    I didn't know that you were Native American :) If I have questions on Native American culture and literature, I will ask you :)