There’s a whole world just down the street from me I know so little about. Much of the action in Katherena Vermette’s book The Break takes place in Winnipeg’s north end in a neighborhood just a few blocks from where I live, on streets where I walk regularly. Selkirk Avenue is mentioned frequently. I walk down Selkirk every time I go and volunteer at the MCC Thrift Store. I’ve had lunch at the Windmill Restaurant where one of the characters takes refugee for a few hours. Although it isn’t named I think I work as a faculty supervisor at the high school some of the characters in the book attend. One of the young narrators in the novel is a patient at the Health Sciences Centre. I walk past it en route to a couple of other schools I visit regularly.
There is a whole world in and around those streets where I walk and work and volunteer that I know little about- a world where gangs wield control and people live in fear of their retaliation, where some young adults are hardened and vicious, where a sentence can’t be uttered without throwing in the ‘f’ word a couple of times, where abuse and violence are everyday occurrences, where drugs are sold, and almost everyone smokes, a world where kids are neglected and hungry.
It’s a place where families are torn apart…. by sudden death, the child welfare system, a transitory life that shifts between Winnipeg and the reserve, by the criminal justice system, a century of discrimination, a desire for a different life but a strong emotional attachment to the old one, and by drug and alcohol dependencies.
It is also a world where there is love and family connectedness, hope, strong women, innocence, loyal friendships, sweetness, a longing for roots, a nostalgia for tradition, a sense of community, artistic gifts, and a respect for elders.
In Katherena Vermette’s book The Break the fact that world is brought to life by an author who has lived in it makes it all the more poignant. The Break is not an easy read. But I am so glad I read it. I will walk the streets brought alive by Katherena’s novel with both my mind and heart opened just a little wider now.