There is a sense of calm as Victoria, a middle-aged, mixed-race Cree woman, sets off on a road trip to James Bay with her settler husband, Daniel. It is a calm derived from satiety and perhaps a dash of complacency: Victoria is a renowned poet, her life with well-meaning Daniel is comfortable in defiance of her past. But as she encounters cousins and friends and contentedly partakes in the Cree tradition of slow, meandering conversation, childhood memories – some peaceful, others traumatic – begin to resurface.
Victoria is beset with upsetting dreams, particularly of her great uncle George, who disappeared on a solo hunting expedition five decades earlier. Driving deeper into her peoples’ traditional territory, including land soon to be washed away by the rerouting of the Rupert River for the Eastmain hydroelectric plant, Victoria accepts a spiritual mission to find George’s body. So resilient is she that not even a tragic accident can stop her on her quest.
Blue Bear Woman, which initially appeared in French in 2007, was the very first novel written by an Indigenous woman to be published in Quebec, a testament to the extreme underrepresentation of Indigenous voices in francophone literature. Author Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau was already an internationally recognized painter and prize-winning poet when she published this debut. Having since brought out two additional novels in French, she remains one of the few recognized Cree authors of her generation in Quebec.
This meditative first-person narrative touches on a number of contemporary Indigenous issues, including intergenerational trauma and land rights. But it is, above all, a profoundly intimate account of a woman’s spiritual journey. Bordeleau’s narrator, in spite of her past, never induces pity. “I recognize the Cree exuberance,” Victoria remarks early in the novel, upon hearing laughter, talk, and the opening and closing of doors in a Waskaganish hotel. It is a line the reader is reminded of often in what follows: this is a novel about exuberance – a hunger for life and love even in the face of death.