Nish: North and South, originally published in French, is the first book in a coming-of-age series that follows Innu twins Leon and Eloise. Written by Isabelle Picard and translated by Kateri Aubin Dubois, the book introduces us to the twins, their family, their friends, and their home – just when threats to their daily lives begin to appear. Their father has to travel south for cancer treatment, someone from their village mysteriously disappears, and they may have to move and leave behind everything they’re familiar with.
For many young readers, Nish might be their first encounter with a realistic depiction of what it’s like to live in the North. Picard’s portrayal of Eloise and Leon’s lives in Matimekush – an Innu community in Quebec – is richly textured. Matimekush’s subarctic climate means that ATVs and snowmobiles feature as practical methods for getting around town. Eloise, the more politically aware of the twins, discusses mining pollution and the forced relocation of Indigenous communities by the Canadian government. Access to education and whether local schools can support Eloise and Leon’s ambitions weigh on their parents’ minds. So, too, does the state of health care. Their mother is a nurse who is intimately aware of the health issues their community faces – including the lack of resources that mean their father will have to travel more than 1,000 kilometres to receive cancer treatment.
Nish isn’t an indictment of life in the North, though. Picard highlights the relationships between community members, particularly among Eloise, Leon, and their Innu friends and family, who talk to each other in Innu-aimun, with translations provided as footnotes. Eloise and Leon often compare living in Matimekush to life farther south – usually in favour of Matimekush. For them, it is home.
The book is strongest when it focuses on the relationships the twins have with their community and their heritage. An Innu story about the wolverine – often a trickster figure in traditional Innu stories – is a central feature of the novel, for example. Less strong is the book’s dialogue, which is overly expository in places; characters have a habit of saying exactly what they’re thinking, sometimes right after thinking it. Overall though, Nish: North and South is a solid translation of an already popular series – one that English readers are likely to latch on to as the Nish series makes its way to the shelves.