Publisher: Vintage Canada
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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