Jennifer Manuel’s debut novel, The Heaviness of Things That Float, told the story of a white nurse who spends 40 years serving a remote First Nations community in northwestern B.C. That book, which won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2017, now has a worthy companion in Manuel’s latest, which features another character trying to figure out how to make a difference in the lives of a people whose pain she can barely fathom, even as she struggles to come to terms with her own dark history.
On the cusp of her fortieth birthday, Molleigh Royston arrives in the remote Pacific Northwest village of Tawakin, where she has taken on the job of educating the eight- to 11-year-old children in the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations community. One month into the job, she’s already thinking of leaving. She’s a new teacher, having turned to the profession following the failure of her career as an artist and the end of her seven-year marriage.
But it’s not inexperience or even the isolated setting that is driving Molleigh to question her decision to leave Surrey and move north – it’s Hannah Charlie, and Candice Henry, and Odelia Joe, and all of the other children in the village who perplex her and make her heart ache with the intergenerational trauma rooted so deep it’s “in their genetic makeup…. Whether they know it’s there or not. Whatever the mind forgets or refuses to remember, you can always find the imprint of it, like a fossil, somewhere in the body.”
Manuel writes with an authority and authenticity borne out by her own experiences teaching elementary and high school in remote Indigenous communities. The doubt, fear, hope, and guilt that Molleigh feels are rendered without apology: here is a white woman battling her own biases and prejudices while trying to make sense of her new community and not overstep or underserve. The navigation of her relationships, not only with her students, but with the community as a whole and even the other non-Indigenous teachers, is complex and nuanced, rendered in Manuel’s rich prose that glides easily between forthright description, poetic similes, and lyric beauty.
Though there is much tragedy in the story, Manuel is careful to balance this with flashes of joy, warmth, and humour. The author is also mindful of not appropriating stories that are not hers to tell, noting via the characters that there is great power in stories, and consequences for those who do not respect the principles and traditions that govern them. Instead, we are given the outsider’s view through a reconciliation lens that focuses attention on the lingering legacy of residential schools and cultural genocide without painting characters solely as victims. They have hope, love, community, and – despite the history of colonization that devastated their people – an open-heartedness that results in a healing journey for Molleigh that is redemptive and satisfying.