Family doesn’t always mean blood, and blood doesn’t always mean family – 12-year-old Hunter, who is desperate to follow his older sister out of the tiny British Columbia town of Red Rock and escape his abusive mother and elder brother, knows that better than most. By the end of Labour Day weekend, 1979, he’ll also learn that you can understand someone without forgiving them.
My Indian Summer, Joseph Kakwinokanasum’s debut novel, explores the impact of intergenerational trauma and what it takes to break the cycle of abuse. Hunter’s mother, Margarette, was forced into residential school as a child. Her time there left Margarette with memories she drinks to forget, and without the ability to be the parent Hunter needs. Hunter is beaten by her and his older brother – who mirrors their mother’s behaviour – and has to collect bottles so he can afford the food Margarette forgets to buy. He also hunts rabbits, trading fur and meat with the local kohkums for food.
Labour Day weekend is a big deal in Red Rock – people come to town for the rodeo and for bingo. That means parties, and for Hunter, parties mean empty bottles to turn in for cash to build his escape fund. For hometown boy turned Vancouver-based drug dealer Troy, Labour Day in Red Rock means lots of customers. Disco-loving, virulently racist, white Troy has a lot in common with Hunter. At 14, he stole his parents’ money and ran away. At first, Hunter can’t help admiring him: though his fashion sense sucks, and he looks sleazy, Troy got out of town and seems to be rolling in cash. Troy models a possible future away from Red Rock.
Similarly, Crow – a local Cree man who lives out in the bush and trades with the kohkums for basic necessities – represents a path open to Hunter. Crow attended the same residential school as Margarette and ended up in prison before finding solace and peace by returning to his culture. Hunter, who enjoys sharing candy and root beer with his best friends and reading Stephen King novels, is initially wary of the too-Cree Crow, but that changes as Hunter is threatened by Troy, and Crow and the kohkums rally around him. When Troy’s drug-dealing goes awry, Hunter thinks he’s in for a windfall, but Hunter quickly discovers the consequences of bad choices, and the warmth of having people who will care about you despite your mistakes.
Alternating in tone between bitter and humorous (in one funny interlude Hunter and his friend Eric contemplate a duffle bag full of marijuana, remembering when they tried to smoke “grass” from the lawn and wondered why people like the stuff) My Indian Summer is a multifaceted coming-of-age story. Although the narration is at times heavy-handed and repetitive, including many call and answer–type refrains, Kakwinokanasum’s clean writing style gives us a clear picture of Hunter’s trauma and his multiple possible futures, without offering a tidy resolution. By the end of the novel, Hunter has matured. Although he has mentally cut ties with his mother and brother, Hunter’s relationship with the kohkums and Crow help him understand Margarette’s trauma and the impact it’s had on his brother – but Hunter’s future remains ambiguous. We, as readers, are left to wonder what path he will go down and where it will take him.