Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead

“…leaving home always hurts–home isn’t a space, it’s a feeling. You have to feel home and to feel it, you have to sense it: smell it, taste it, hear it. And it isn’t always comfortable–“

4/5 stars.
ebook, 224 pages.
Read from January 19, 2021 to January 24, 2021

This is my first of five of the Canada Reads 2021 shortlist. Devery Jacobs will be championing this book in the debates that will take place from March 8-11. The debates will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

Jonny Appleseed is about a self-professed Indigiqueer named Jonny who battles his way out of growing up queer on a native reservation in Manitoba, Canada. Reflections of his youth mix the abuse he suffered from his step-father along with the toxic masculinity and patriarchy of the reserve that is beautifully counterbalanced by the strength and acceptance of the women and intimate friends in his life, especially his kokum. Jonny’s history intertwines with his modern day struggles as a self-employed prostitute and his conflicting love and friendships that have been affected by his upbringing. The story and his reflections take place one week before he is set to return home to the ‘rez’ of which he has not been back to for many years. Jonny’s reflections take on a dream like quality that takes the reader through many years of turmoil, determination, grief, sex, kinship, and love.

“Funny how NDN “love you” sounds more like, “I’m in pain with you.””

Jonny’s story embodies the racial and cultural situation of many native americans, or NDNs as they refer to themselves, in a raw and matter of fact manner. Jonny is poetic and unapologetic which is complimented by the graphic and honest writing that is both sympathetic and emotive. Jonny’s story is also very sex and LGBTQ+ positive in the way Jonny’s behaviours and descriptions are handled within the book. At its root, Jonny’s story is about coming home, find yourself, and connecting with the people who have supported and shaped the person you become.

I enjoyed the poetic qualities of this book immensely, especially with how they jived with the gritty descriptions of sex, grime, and poverty. The author’s writing is solid, engaging, and details his talents. He is able to portray feelings and relationships in an emotive and inclusive way that reaches the a reader at their core.

So, does this book meet the theme of this years Canada Reads, One Book to Transport Us? While there are more moments of transportation within Jonny’s story in terms how he views his home and his kokum along with the dream-like approach of the writing, when I envision a book that transports me it’s normally in a setting that portrays a lot of more happiness and hope. While I loved this novel, I am uncertain it will meet the bill for this year’s theme. I will be interested in seeing how Devery Jacobs defends this.

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.”

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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. 

From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle

If you’re looking for an uplifting and inspiring read to get your through the COVID-19 quarantine, this is it.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 451 pages.
Read from March 24, 2020 to March 31, 2020.

Well, finishing this book wraps up all five of the 2020 Canada Reads finalists for me. I’ll post my final thoughts on the five next week. From the Ashes will be defended by George Canyon when the debates resume after the COVID-19 virus settles. Now, let’s talk about the amazing story of Jesse Thistle…

“My words belonged to me, they were the only thing I had that were mine, and I didn’t trust anyone enough to share them.”

From the Ashes is the epitome of inspiration. Jesse Thistle overcame some of the worst things a person can endure; parental abandonment, drug addiction, homelessness, sexual assault, trauma, identity loss, and dealing with severe chronic physical pain (*spoiler* he almost loses his leg). Jesse Thistle is of Metis and Cree descent but he didn’t always know that. Jesse was raised by his grandparent’s after his mother mistakenly left him and his brothers in the care of his drug-addicted father. While Jesse was eventually able to reunite with his mother, he never did see his dad again. Jesse’s grandparents were firm but loving but it didn’t stop the trouble that Jesse eventually found himself in. After getting caught with drugs at 19, his grandfather accused him of being just like his dad and kicked him out of the family home and barred him from ever returning. Jesse left his home in Ontario and began his homeless life in Vancouver where he abandoned his best friend before ending up back in Ontario. Jesse was homeless for most of his young adult life. While most of us have fond memories of our 20s and early 30s, for Jesse it was a matter of survival, nearly giving up, and then making the choice to live again.

Jesse is now happily married to a woman he knew from his school days who helped him achieve his dream of getting a university degree after he got clean. His studies led him to explore his own family and heritage which then helped him pursue his career in academics. Jesse is now the Assistant Professor of Métis Studies at York University.

If you’re looking for an uplifting and inspiring read to get your through the COVID-19 quarantine, this is it. I mean, if a story like this, during a time like this doesn’t put life into perspective for you I don’t know what will. Imagine being a nobody. Having nobody, no home, no clean clothes, no money, no personal hygiene…  You can’t, there is no way to truly envision it unless you’ve lived it the way Jesse had. Jesse’s story is surreal, making it all the more shocking that too many Canadians, especially ones of Native or Metis descent, currently live the way he did, most of whom don’t escape the tragic lifestyle.

Mr. Thistle’s writing is highly engaging, succinct, perceptive, and humble. Feats that many accomplished authors are not able to do, which makes it even more amazing to acknowledge the fact that Mr. Thistle wasn’t always exceptional at reading or writing. It wasn’t until he started working on his GED while serving time in prison that he began to improve. Despite it being a worn-out saying, it doesn’t make it any less true to say that Mr. Thistle is the embodiment of being able to do anything you set your mind to.

Even in Jesse’s darkest moments, he held onto some form of code and personal honour in that he refused to deal drugs for the money he needed for his addictions and never took advantage of people he got close to. A rare quality even for those who are not addicts.

Mr. Thistle includes some of his own poetry snippets between the chapters and photos of himself, from childhood, mug shots, as well as family and wedding photos, adding to the heart-tugging emotional depth of this novel.

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Jesse Thistle – Photos – CBC Canada Reads

Out of all the Canada Reads books I read this year, I can safely say that I enjoyed this one the most. Is this the one book to bring Canada into focus? It touches on topics that have been making waves in Canada such as Native American rights, homelessness, drug addiction, sexual assault, and trauma. The fact that this story has a positive outcome also gives it an edge against the others in meeting the theme. We will have to wait and see what happens when the debates resume. The Canada Reads debates have been postponed until further notice due to the COVID-19 virus.

Stay safe and healthy, readers!