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Tilly and the Crazy Eights

by Monique Gray Smith

Since winning the 2014 Burt Award for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Literature for Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience, Cree-Lakota-Scottish writer Monique Gray Smith has published three children’s books and produced the podcast Love Is Medicine. All these projects underscore themes of hope and resilience that continue with Tilly and the Crazy Eights, a sequel of sorts to Smith’s first book.

The story begins with eight Elders deciding to travel to the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in Albuquerque, each of them marking off an item on their “bucket lists” along the way – dancing at the powwow, visiting Las Vegas, spreading a sister’s ashes among the red rocks of Sedona. With the help of their community, they secure a small bus and the funds for travel but still need a driver, which is where Tilly comes in.

In Smith’s first novel, Tilly was coming of age and into sobriety; now the reader finds her at mid-life, a married mother of two who’s at a crossroads. The opportunity to spend two weeks with Elders and receive the gifts of their teachings is the medicine she needs. Ideas of medicine recur throughout the text – laughter is medicine, and so are tears and words. For everyone, this will be a journey about healing.

It’s not an easy journey, though. Among the group is a couple who have reunited decades after their divorce; an Elder frail from a bout with cancer; the grieving mother of a daughter who passed years earlier; and two sisters who have never talked about the abuse they endured at a residential school. But the voyage turns out to be beneficial for all of them, a model for moving forward and healing from trauma. “It felt good,” Smith writes, “real good, to know that history did not determine the future. They did.”

A straightforward structure and understated prose add lightness to the narrative, although the stories and lessons themselves are born of centuries of struggle and resistance. Most powerfully, Smith infuses her novel with joy, love, and laughter and suggests that these could be what determine the future after all.