Reading Catherine Lafferty’s memoir Northern Wildflower, I kept wondering if my responses to it made me a morally reprehensible human being, a Donald Trump of the reviewing world. How can a story of growing up as a First Nations Dene woman in the Northwest Territories and Alberta against a backdrop of addiction, violence, poverty, prostitution rings, and teen pregnancy be so charming, joyous, and life-affirming? Do I find the way it explores or resists trauma relatable?
The answer to both questions is at once as simple and as complex as the stories Lafferty includes in her debut book. On one level, this is a classic coming-of-age tale of a woman who experiments with identity – from mall rat to angry goth – and recalls in vivid detail the freedom of her first car, the taste of her first kiss, the pain of her first fight, and the regrets of her first overdose. On the other, Lafferty places her rich life in the wider context of what it’s like to be an Indigenous woman in a Canada that continues to see her gender and race as problems to be solved rather than as agents of change.
“I want justice. I want to take back our stolen identities,” she declares in the first chapter. By the final one, you realize that, thanks to the power of storytelling and the significance of memoirs as personal testimonies, she’s several steps closer to her political objective.
Lafferty knows that she has set herself an enormous task and opts to tell her story in an unadorned, confessional tone. While she brings people and places to life – the coldness and physical isolation of the North are palpable – she puts more emphasis on the emotional register of each scene. One of the book’s most moving sequences comes when Lafferty, 15 years old and pregnant, gives up her baby for adoption. The mood shifts from the business-like “proposal for a baby” submitted by families waiting for a child to adopt to the heartbreaking moment when an exhausted Lafferty wheels the infant into the nursery “to let her go, into the hands of someone else to raise.”
Elsewhere, and as with any life worth recounting, sorrow and slapstick overlap. During her training as an aesthetician at a beauty school, Lafferty’s list of unhappy clients ranges from a hairy man who ends up with a botched wax job on his back to a woman who walks out of the salon with angry purple bruises on her cheeks one day before her wedding. Lafferty spends much of her own wedding ceremony trying to hold on to a dress that falls apart at the seams during a lively dance routine and breaking up a fight between a guest and one of her bridesmaids. The marriage doesn’t last long, but the selfishness of her husband forces Lafferty to take control of her life.
That the author survives all of this and goes on to become a leader in her community (as a council member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation) is not surprising – hint: education plays a role – but is less carefully charted than her early years. That’s understandable, and less of a structural flaw, since this is a book about beginnings. One of them, as a foreword by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson suggests, is Northern Wildflower’s own status as one of the few memoirs by a Dene woman. Lafferty has pulled this off with disarming honesty and grace.
Correction: An earlier version of this review stated that Lafferty’s book is the first published memoir by a Dene woman. This is incorrect. Q&Q regrets the error.