Katherena Vermette’s first book, North End Love Songs, a poetry collection set among Winnipeg’s Métis community, won a 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award. In her debut novel, the author finds herself in familiar and heart-wrenching territory of prejudice and violence.
“The Break” is hydro land that cuts a swath through Winnipeg’s North End neighbourhood; in the novel it serves as both the setting for a terrible crime and a symbol of the fractured lives of the characters, four generations of a Métis family headed by Flora (the grandmother, or Kookom in Cree). Vermette, herself a Métis living in Winnipeg, brings the setting to life so effectively that the reader can see the grey streets and worn-out homes and feel the bitter cold.
The family at the heart of the book has suffered grievous loss. Years earlier, Kookom’s daughter, Lorraine, was murdered, leaving Lorraine’s own daughter, Stella, to be raised by Kookom. Stella is now a wife and mother herself, with a toddler and a six-month-old baby. Stella’s white husband fears something awful will happen if she visits Kookom’s sketchy neighbourhood, so Stella finds herself more or less cut off at home. Kookom’s other daughter, Cheryl, is a functional alcoholic who manages to maintain her job at an art gallery. Cheryl’s two daughters, Louisa and Paulina, have children whose fathers are mostly absent.
When Paulina’s teenage daughter, Emily, is viciously attacked, the women come together as they have always done in times of trouble. Though this novel deals realistically with contemporary social problems, which are mirrored in the icy winter setting, the warmth of the family relationships the author depicts is a welcome contrast.
Other than one chapter, first-person narration is restricted to short prologues that precede each of the novel’s four parts. The lone male perspective is that of Tommy, a police officer who, along with his lazy and bigoted white partner, is investigating the attack on Emily. The perpetrator of the crime is evident to readers, though Emily’s family and friends are mystified and frustrated by the police inquiry. Vermette captures the longing that characterizes many of the family members. Kookom misses her husband, Charlie. Cheryl and her daughters have troubled relationships. Emily has a crush on a guy; her friend, Zegwan, an intelligent and savvy young woman, tries to steer her away from trouble. Addictions afflict the generations and degrade the bonds between parent and child. This is most apparent in the character of Phoenix, a deeply disturbed teenager who flees a youth centre and runs straight to her uncle’s drug house. Homelessness and poverty force some girls into lives of addiction and prostitution as means of survival.
The language the characters use is realistic, though harsh and violent. This is especially true of some of the younger characters, who cannot seem to speak a single sentence that does not contain the word “fuck.” Men, in particular, do not come across admirably in the novel, and most of them abandon their families. Louisa recognizes that women – herself included – often get involved with unsuitable men; what is interesting is the acknowledgement of sexual desire and power that Vermette portrays among the women in her novel.
Several members of Kookom’s family consider life outside the confines of the city healthier; the characters succumb to a frequent urge to escape the damaging effects of modern urbanity, but, for most of them, the old way of life is gone. The urban indigenous are caught between worlds; prejudice against the Métis arises from both whites and indigenous peoples. In spite of this, many of the characters display amazing endurance. They remain deeply connected to family, and their love for one another sees them through the most apparently unbearable tragedies.
While the violent characters in the novel are despicable, it is a testament to Vermette’s skill that they also appear pitiable. The Break is a condemnation of reprehensible individual behaviour, but also of a broader society incapable of dealing effectively with problems of addiction, poverty, homelessness, and despair. Vermette isn’t laying blame: she simply details the tragedy of cultural loss, prejudice, family breakdown, and violence for her readers to assess.
In unfolding her multigenerational narrative, Vermette ties together several disparate plot strands en route to a realistic conclusion. However, the way Vermette resolves some of her plot points is a bit too pat. The story of Stella’s relationship with her husband, Jeff, is presented from Stella’s perspective; Jeff remains something of a stereotype. And the longing for a return to an idyllic life in nature seems a tad romantic. However, fiction is capable of helping us to comprehend difference and otherness, and The Break offers clear insight into people struggling to secure a place in the world.