This book review was originally published by Monday Magazine.
The novel begins with a scary encounter. We first meet Tilly in familiar territory– an Edenic summer day in Kelowna with the lingering aroma of ripe fruit and the sounds of tourists en route to their cabins on the lake. Tilly, the very picture of innocence, skips alongside her mother, pigtails bouncing rhythmically as she searches for ice cream. Tilly’s innocence is soon cut short, however, as an encounter with a stranger literally knocks her to the ground. She struggles to breathe as the stranger spits slurs at her mother: paradise is irrevocably lost for Tilly, her fledgling, unformed identity framed by shame at the novel’s very outset.
With Tilly’s loss of innocence comes truth’s tremendous burden. Canada’s dark history is illuminated, and extends into Tilly’s current reality; Tilly inherits the legacy of Canada’s darkest hour, a grievous weight rests upon the shoulders of a young child. Tilly learns that her mother is from the Cree Nation, and was stolen away from her family as a child, instigating a rupture in the continuation of her people’s language and culture. She learns the reasons behind her mother’s extended bouts of impenetrable silence, times when even cooking becomes difficult. For the rest of the novel, Tilly tries to come to terms with a reality too grim to understand.
Tilly’s story is at once specific and universal. While many of us don’t have to struggle with the fact that our own culture was systematically targeted for destruction by an imperialist Canadian Government, all of us, much like Tilly, can remember a time when our conception of the world was forever changed, when strangers hated us without even taking the time to get to know us. Like Tilly, many of us took solace in destructive elixirs such as alcohol which at first helped to numb a pain so deep we often mistook it for ourselves, but ultimately only took us further down destruction’s dark trail. We mourn Tilly’s loss of innocence along with our own.
While Monique Gray Smith’s expertly told semi-autobiographical tale explores darkness and despair unflinchingly, her’s, as the book’s subtitle suggests, is ultimately a story of hope and resilience. For Tilly, healing comes as she embraces her own identity, rather than running from it. The wisdom of the Ancestors, most notably Tilly’s grandmother, guides Tilly throughout the novel, helping her overcome her shame, and ultimately restoring her to health. Tilly’s resilience is all the more compelling in the context of her times of complete despair: her story gives us all hope.
Monique Gray Smith’s debut novel comes as a much welcome addition to a post-post-modern literary climate. Whereas many contemporary writers dwell on fracture, offering us the world in chaos-ridden fragments, Tilly seeks connection. If we allow Tilly’s truly holistic approach to healing inform our own journey, we will all be better off for it as we look forward to reading Gray Smith’s next work.