228 pages, Douglas & McIntyre, 2018
Well, I’ve joined a book club, would you believe it? Last December, the Spirit of Christmas inspired me, and I went through my contact list to reach out to long lost acquaintances. HT was on the list–we went to high school together–and, by a good stroke of fortune, still has the same phone number. She invited me to join her book club, so here I am! Mamaskatch is the second book I’ve read with the club (the first was Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See). The club has five members, and how it works is that each time we meet, a different member proposes three books. The other members vote, and we read and discuss the most popular book.
I’ve been gaining valuable self-awareness since joining the book club. What sort of awareness, you ask? Well, it seems that I like to read weird books. Or books that other people consider weird, as in “Don’t talk to that freak–look at what he’s reading!” How do I know this? Well, since I’ve been reading the book club books, everyone approaches me to make small talk. If I’m at the bus stop, they make small talk. If I’m in a restaurant, they make small talk. If I’m at the coffee shop, they make small talk. This has shocked me, since no one ever approaches me to make small talk if I’m reading books from my personal selections. Reading book club books has been a most enlightening experience.
Mamaskatch Book Blurb
Growing up in the tiny village of Smith, Alberta, Darrel J. McLeod was surrounded by his Cree family’s history. In shifting and unpredictable stories, his mother, Bertha, shared narratives of their culture, their family and the cruelty that she and her sisters endured in residential school. McLeod was comforted by her presence and that of his many siblings and cousins, the aromas of moose stew and wild peppermint tea, and his deep love of the landscape. Bertha taught him to be fiercely proud of his heritage and to listen to the birds that would return to watch over and guide him at key junctures of his life.
However, in a spiral of events, Darrel’s mother turned wild and unstable, and their home life became chaotic. Darrel struggled to maintain his grades and pursue an interest in music while changing homes, witnessing violence, caring for his siblings and suffering abuse at the hands of his surrogate father. Meanwhile, his sibling’s gender transition provoked Darrel to deeply question his own identity and sexuality.
Beautifully written honest and thought-provoking, Mamaskatch–named for the Cree word used as a response to dreams shared–is ultimately an uplifting account of overcoming personal and societal obstacles. In spite of the traumas of Darrel’s childhood, deep and mysterious forces handed down by his mother helped him survive and thrive: her love and strength stayed with him to build the foundation of what would come to be a very fulfilling and adventurous life.
Darrel J. McLeod is Cree from Treaty 8 territory in Northern Alberta. Before deciding to pursue writing, he was a chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations. He holds degrees in French literature and eduction from the University of British Columbia. He lives in Sooke, BC, and is working on a second memoir to follow Mamaskatch. In the spring of 2018, he was accepted into the Banff Writing Studio to advance his first work of fiction.
This book may be a tough read for some folks. The scope of abuse, shame, and neglect McLeod suffers from an early age is mind blowing. For folks who haven’t experienced this sort of life, it’s quite hard to imagine how seemingly everyone he encounters is some sort of predator.
The most profound part of the book for me is how McLeod looks at his own upbringing with a look of distance. There’s many opportunities for him to point fingers and distribute blame. But he resists. He describes his experiences from an almost objective, arm’s length perspective. He lets readers come to their own conclusions. For that I am grateful. For me, that is McLeod’s genius and gift as a writer. To have maintained an arm’s length separation from pain and trauma must have been difficult. To blame would have been all too easy. But that would have made for a much less satisfying read. Letting readers decide helps readers engage more deeply with his story, one for the ages.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.