It is 1968. Elinor Greystone is a 90+-year-old Cree woman living in the Qu’Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan. As she nears the end of her life, she feels an urgent need to find her first daughter, Bright Eyes, the result of a rape at a residential school. Elinor enlists the help of Alice, her granddaughter, and Louise, her daughter, to find Bright Eyes, the child forcibly taken from Elinor over seven decades earlier.
Red Sky in the Morning, a.k.a. Elinor, is a character the reader will come to love and admire. She has not had an easy life, as she herself admits, having “’survived residential school, the theft of my first-born, the loss of babies, the murder of my husband.’” Yet she retains a stamina and tenacity that belie her years, and she sees beauty in the natural world around her. Her wisdom and her connection to nature especially make her a memorable character; she speaks to animals, even a stuffed bison in a natural history museum which she visits regularly.
This is the first novel I have read which is written from the perspective of a residential school survivor. What makes the novel’s message powerful is that we see the treatment of Indians from a personal perspective. This book could very well have become a political diatribe about the horrors of residential schools, but the author merely touches on some of what happened, and that is enough to convey the horrors of that experience. Elinor’s comment that the school was “a canker, sucking life from all that entered” is an effective description.
It is not just Elinor who emerges as a round character. Her daughter Louise and her granddaughter Alice are also developed. Each of these women has secrets because “shame holds secrets like a banker’s vault” but “Secrets are like pods of the milkweed. They always burst open.” Each woman is also compelled to examine herself to acquire a better sense of who she is, especially in terms of her relationship with her Native heritage. Louise escaped the reservation on which she lived and has long been alienated from her culture; Alice wants her heritage to inform her life.
This book is definitely a worthwhile read. It has a strong, memorable character and it addresses an aspect of Canadian history of which we should all be aware. The novel speaks to both the mind and the heart.
Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.