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Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman

by Rudy Wiebe & Yvonne Johnson

Rudy Wiebe won the 1973 Governor General’s Award for Fiction for The Temptations of Big Bear, a book he wrote about Yvonne Johnson’s great-great-grandfather, the eponymous Plains Cree chief. Twenty-five years later, Wiebe and Johnson – the only native woman in Canada serving a life sentence for murder – have teamed up to create a moving account of the circumstances that led to Johnson’s incarceration.

Adapting aboriginal oral tradition into linear narrative format is problematic. First, aboriginal historical time is continuous. Stories about something that happened yesterday and something that happened 500 years ago are often told in the same tense, because of the circular nature of aboriginal time. Second, aboriginal people will often circle around a direct question and tell a story that seems like it has nothing to do with the question – then expect the listener to discern the meaning or answer. Third, aboriginal oral tradition situates individual experience within the collective experience, and the collective within the individual, which means that one’s personal story is also the history of a people, and vice versa.

Stolen Life successfully bridges the gap between written narrative and oral culture by employing the techniques of biography, autobiography, and memoir. Wiebe uses a first-person explication of events to set the stage for Johnson’s recollections of family dysfunction, sexual abuse, and the justice system. Wiebe reorganizes Johnson’s unfolding history in a linear fashion, but pays attention to oral tradition by locating both himself and Johnson in the story. (Aboriginal stories are almost always relational rather than “objective,” that is, the teller positions herself in the telling in terms of her relationship to it, and identifies her voice to ensure accountability to that relationship.)

The story flows back and forth through time yet never loses its sense of immediacy. Wiebe’s writing, unlike most non-fiction, betrays a sense of compassion and personal amazement at the circumstances that have linked his life to Johnson’s. After reading a tattered copy of The Temptations of Big Bear, Johnson wrote Wiebe a letter, and they began a correspondence. Johnson eventually filled 17 notebooks – in which she demonstrates her obvious intelligence and a refined sense of language – with recollections of her life and ruminations on her spiritual journey. These notebooks, the letters, and Wiebe’s take on their eventual meetings in prison form the basis of Stolen Life.

Stolen Life brings us the story of one woman seeking to reclaim her history, to understand her pain, and to honour her responsibilities. In so doing, it honours the central principle of oral tradition: that only those who have memory will understand.