As You Were by David Tromblay

Tromblay takes a no-holds-barred, full-frontal approach to his writing that is immersive and, at times, shocking.

4/5 stars.
ARC ebook, 251 pages.
Read from October 14, 2020 to October 19, 2020.

A big thank you to Dzanc Books who offered me an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

When the author learns that his father is dying he decides to write a memoir of sorts, a testament to the brutality that was inflicted on him as a child and as a young man. Tromblay is part Native American, on his father’s side, and after being abandoned by his mother, his grandmother raises him the only way she knew how. Tromblay’s grandmother lived through the reservation boarding schools that Native Americans were forced into, meaning that anything she knew about punishment came in the form of fear and physical abuse. To make matters worse, Tromblay’s father lived with them as well and not only is he an alcoholic but he suffers brain damage from a previous car accident making him extremely volatile and aggressive. Tromblay’s father always said to him, that the day that he could “take him” was the day he had no place under his roof. Tromblay eventually escapes his tormenters and finds himself in the Armed Forces as a young man. While his capacities for violence were put to good use, his experiences inevitably led to further trauma. 

Tromblay takes a no-holds-barred, full-frontal approach to his writing that is immersive and, at times, shocking. The book moves back and forth in time to parts of Tromblay’s childhood to pieces of his adult life and his time in the Armed Forces, often half a world away. Tromblay’s story is a unique coming of age story that discloses so much pain and humiliation and yet it is still an engaging read as the book’s tone is not one of pity. You get the idea that the author has accepted that this is just the way things are, just like a straight-faced soldier who has compartmentalizes his pain.  The story is written in the second person, as the author addresses himself giving the story a poetic and poignant feel, despite its raw content. As a reader you’re drawn to Tromblay’s torment through its honest and direct structure as well as the poetic style that comforts you, as you somehow already surmise the strength behind the author’s words, anticipating a positive outcome. 

“He does die, but it takes you another half-dozen drafts to say what you need to say. With his last breath, the last bit of angst drips out of your pen.”

p.250

Tromblay’s story is less about pain and more about overcoming it by confronting it head-on. It’s about a grieving process unique to those who have experienced traumas by people who were supposed to care for them as well as those affected by war and death. While there are many graphic details in the story that some might find triggering or disturbing, it was all part of a necessary process for Tromblay. His father’s death is an opportunity to release, maybe not forgive, but to let go and move on. 

With his father’s death, Tromblay finds some healing from his past and a future in writing to look forward to. After a decade in the Army, Tromblay went on to pursue his MA in Creative Writing having since published two books, of which this is his second. This book covers so many dynamic themes that it is an approachable story for those that are willing to follow in the author’s disturbing past and hopeful future. I would highly recommend it.

This novel is expected to be available for purchase in February 2021. 

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

“When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals are pronounced backward, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human. That is hell on earth, that sense of unworthiness. That’s what they inflicted on us.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 191 pages
Read from January 1, 2019 to January 2, 2019

I picked up this book on a recommendation by a friend, though if I had started reading all the Canada Reads books just one year earlier I would have come across this moving story sooner. Indian Horse made the Canada Reads 2013 shortlist but was unfortunately voted off in the first round.

Indian Horse is an all-encompassing story that touches tragic issues related to the indigenous people in Canada. The story also has wide-reaching themes with its integral connection to hockey and the protagonist’s, Saul Indian Horse, struggles with childhood trauma and alcoholism. Saul’s past starts with his indigenous roots as a young child trying to escape the prying arms of the white man trying to forcefully place him and siblings in residential schooling. His family knows the woods and has this advantage but their luck does not last forever. After being pried away from the frozen and dead grip of his grandmother he is forced into a residential school where endures severe abuse. His only reprieve from the misery and loneliness of the school is through hockey. Saul shows promise as a talented hockey player at a young age but his native roots make him an outcast against the white hockey teams he plays against, despite being better than them. As Saul grows, hockey carries him through the toughest moments in his life but things start to turn sour as Saul becomes an adult and the hockey realm becomes more abusive and physical. Unable to deal with his past traumas and personal failures Saul turns to drink. The story opens with Saul at rock bottom with him coming to an understanding that if he wants peace he needs to tell his story.

Saul’s childhood is nothing short of traumatizing as the author details how Saul and many real indigenous people in Canada were treated during the horrific era of residential schooling in Canada. Physical and sexual abuse was rampant, leaving many of the children with irreparable trauma in which its no surprise that many did turn substance abuse as an outlet. Saul’s story is tragic but the ending is nothing short of inspiring. The writing is easy to read yet remarkably crafted. Richard Wagamese is a talented author that writes from the heart, his characters are dynamic and engaging and his plot and storylines are thoughtful and concise.

This book is for every Canadian, especially those who enjoy inspirational stories on overcoming adversity, hockey, or anything related to Canadian history. What makes this story all the more poignant is that Saul’s story represents so many indigenous children in Canada with the tragedy being that so many of them don’t get the peaceful ending that Saul did making it all the more important that their stories get shared.