In his debut memoir, writer Darrel J. McLeod uses the imagery and tenets of Cree storytelling to make sense of a harrowing childhood. McLeod has written a powerful, unflinching work of non-fiction, one that isn’t afraid to leave itself raw and unfinished, nodding to the stories that are yet to come.
The memoir – which is named after the Cree word for a shared dream – opens with McLeod’s mother, Bertha Dora, who was taken from her family as a child and struggled to get by in a residential school. Bertha’s misery is cut short through a daring escape orchestrated by her aunt. The flight is fast and thrilling and thrums with the adventure that powers the best kind of legends – which makes it all the more painful when the reader encounters the trauma inflicted on the young Bertha during her short time at the school resurface in a pattern of cyclical violence.
The violence Bertha was heir to is doomed to repeat itself throughout her life and the lives of her children. McLeod is subject to the whims of his mother’s alcoholism and he suffers abuse – both physical and sexual – at the hands of his brother-in-law. As a child, he is shunted from his mother’s home to his elder sister’s home and back. Struggling to come of age in the face of constant fear, McLeod gradually drifts away from the Catholic Church, an institution that played a heavy role in his early life. Instead, he finds himself drawn to Cree stories and lessons that begin to provide solace, companionship, and meaning to his days.
The figures McLeod writes about in Mamaskatch shimmer in the best kind of way, from McLeod’s beleaguered older sister, Debbie, to his brother, Greg, who eventually transitions into a woman named Trina. This marks the beginning of McLeod’s own inquiry into his sexuality and place in the world.
The natural world – birds that appear as guides, the Three Sisters Mountain that offers comfort and strength during a particularly dark time in McLeod’s life, and the sparkling Athabasca River – is drawn in an equally vivid manner.
Nothing, however, appears as brightly or as darkly as Bertha. The parts of the book written from her perspective pulse with their own kind of intensity – if only there were more of them, spaced evenly throughout the entire volume, to illuminate the ways in which McLeod sought to understand her grief and joy. The memoir as written feels slightly unbalanced, the pacing at times stuttered and uneven.
But then, life is hardly ever balanced. This reminder is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. Mamaskatch embodies the recognition of the way stories can help to pull one through the darkest moments. Which is, truly, the best kind of myth-making.