Jesse Thistle has lived a hard life. A descendent of Saskatchewan’s Michif “road allowance” people (who lived on small strips of land between homesteads that were unused by the Crown), his parents were not able to provide stuff or safety for him or his two brothers. He was put in the foster care system, then placed with his paternal grandparents in Ontario. While he knew love from them, there nevertheless remained a yearning for his own parents that he was unable to rid himself of. In his new memoir, Thistle tells the story of what happens when you are untethered from family and community.
Thistle details his and his siblings’ hunger, abandonment, and seizure by child services, exposure to false promises of monetary wealth, and experience with violence and homelessness. He is thrown out of his grandparents’ house and ends up on a series of urban streets in Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa, where he struggles to find community, home, and some source of income (be it begged, borrowed, or stolen). Perhaps most notable about his story are the silences and absences. The lack of a safety net, the absence of a responsible adult, and the invisibility of community support are all viscerally presented.
There is a fluency here with the language of loss. For those who do not speak it, Thistle’s book may at times be difficult to read. For those who do, the author’s capacity to draw lines of connection between himself, the reader, and remembered, imagined, or created communities is powerful. From the first time he is pulled from his father’s home into child and family services, where food and a bed feel like luxuries, we begin to understand that stereotypes and conventional understandings are about to be challenged. The story Thistle offers is in no way an endorsement of any institution or policy – rather, it is about how he and his brothers found enough food and shelter to sustain them.
In the world Thistle inhabits, poverty, addiction, and homelessness are all one step over a line. Some are pushed, some stumble, and some jump. Thistle’s portrait of street life and how easily one can fall into it is one of which many of us have seen only glimpses. From the Ashes clearly illustrates the thin lines between survival and autonomy, between running away and running toward, between drugs as medication and substances of abuse. These borders are shown in an abundance of detail and without the righteousness that some hardship narratives can traffic in. Thistle acknowledges his responsibility in creating the conditions of his own situation. He portrays his younger self as bored, arrogant, thoughtless, and unmotivated, but also hungry, sad, and human. He does not appear as a hero or anti-hero, nor is his story reduced to a cautionary tale.
His deeply intelligent and frank relationship with trauma is one in which he is both immersed and able to see a way out of from time to time. The dialogue in the book is conversational and matter of fact, which belies the deeply meaningful way Thistle engages with the pain of broken relationships and broken relatives. Reading it requires you to take your thoughtful self, not just your judging and forgiving self, to the edge of places most of us don’t like to visit or think about. Rave culture. Rage culture. Ravaged cultures. Drug dens, back alleys, liquor stores, dumpsters. The places Thistle takes us come together to illustrate a common theme: we look for home wherever we can find it.
Over the course of the book, Thistle builds a better world for himself, one day and one decision at a time. It is a remarkable transformation to witness, and the arc of his story will make the reader want to cheer. That said, From the Ashes should not be mistaken for a redemption story. Rather, it is a love story – about family, community, romantic partners.
Thistle’s book prompts us to re-examine our understanding of what makes someone worthy and to confront the possibility that exists in spaces we try to forget about. With openness, candour, and generosity, Thistle provides moments of profundity and eloquence that also serve as a reminder of the depth and kindness that live in every person. Importantly, he reveals a Canada known to too many peoples yet ignored by the dominant culture, and clearly illustrates what happens when traumatizing systems are the colonial answer to the very problems the colonizers created. Readers will come to better understand violence on Turtle Island – both colonial and otherwise – because of the candour with which Thistle presents it in this book.