Synopsis: Teen-aged Winter struggles through a series of hardships after her king-pin father is arrested, upsetting her life completely. Her sisters are taken by social services, her mother develops an addiction, and Winter is on her own navigating street life and trying to hustle for herself.
Review & Commentary:
This is the first time that I have read this book, which was first published in the 90s. Sister Souljah does action well, keeping a fast-pace throughout this novel. She also has a knack for portraying youth and their experiences quite realistically, and has achieved this by setting up a believable first-person narrative. However, some of the elements of the story didn't quite tie together for me, which was something to be expected from a book that has since been heralded as a classic of its genre.
Sister Souljah interjects herself into the novel (a trick of meta-fiction I've noticed in other urban lit novels that I suspect borrow from this one), but it fails to underscore any meaningful message Souljah may have had and comes off instead as arrogant. It seems the intention was to provide a dialogue between herself, the writer, and young persons who don't support her activism. Perhaps even it was intended to permit the writer to tell those young persons she is supportive of them and respects their viewpoints. But the way Sister Souljah attempts this feels clunky and forced, as if she is merely tooting her own horn. She appears on a pedestal at different intervals to chime in, but her message isn't accepted by any of the main characters with mixed results. Ultimately it just sends a confusing message. In fact, upon reading The Coldest Winter Ever, one can't be sure just what Souljah is even trying to say.
Perhaps it is an anti-drug message for youth. Yet, a golden halo surrounds character Midnight, even as he defends his involvement in drug-dealing, while Sister Souljah's character trumpets in the background about why this is morally wrong, and it doesn't seem Midnight ever comes to her side on this issue. This strange juxtaposition is furthered by the choices Souljah makes in the denouement. Protagonist Winter Santiaga never reconciles with her mother, who develops an addiction earlier in the novel, and even at the end seems to be firmly sided with her father (as she has since the exposition) who could be blamed for much of her own struggles, that of her mother, and that of her sisters. Winter's narrative insists she's learned a hard lesson after being imprisoned herself, but it doesn't seem she really has -
"So instead of saying what I had learned, what was on the tip of my tongue, I said nothing at all. Hell, I'm not into meddling in other people's business. I definitely don't be making no speeches. Fuck it. She'll learn for herself. That's the way it is" (pg. 337).
But, of course, Winter doesn't learn for herself, even after being betrayed and facing time. It also seems the author is undercutting herself by never allowing Winter to see her activism positively. In this way, the novel fails to provide a strong resolution and brings the reader to question the author's own internalized misogyny. Particularly when Sister Souljah chooses to include a number of disturbing scenes stressing the violence, homophobia, and hatred of women that are rife in lower-income, high-crime areas, a more hopeful message that counteracts those attitudes is desired by the reader. It is strange that Sister Souljah represents herself as having many boyfriends, but is apparently asexual, in contrast to the other female characters. It is as if to say that they are to blame for their own mistreatment through their sexual promiscuity. Yet the character of Winter's mother is sufficient to remind the reader this is not the case. A garbled, rather strange clash of perspective is left with a cast of strongly stereotyped, static characters that interact but never influence each other or change or evolve in a meaningful way.
The novel also could have benefited from stronger editing and revision, which is something that I have come to expect from urban lit novels. A number of typos and grammatical mistakes are distracting throughout.
Overall, I found The Coldest Winter Ever to be entertaining; but feel it could have been much stronger and deliver a clearer, less conflicting message to its readers.
Synopsis: All but kidnapped by social workers at age 3, Garnet Raven finds himself growing up in a series of foster homes, leaving him with a confused sense of identity. Eventually, as an adult, he finds himself serving time at a penitentiary. While he is here, he receives a letter from his family inviting him to come home after his release. Nervous, and a little reluctant, Garnet Raven accepts this offer and finds himself on an unique spiritual journey - not only to reconnect with lost family and with his community, but to recover his spirit and cultural identity as he learns to embody the traditions of the Anishanabe people.
Review & Commentary:
Keepern' Me is an intimate account of spiritual healing. This is not an action-driven novel with a fast-moving plot; but a character study told by two first-person perspectives: those of Garnet and his mentor, Keeper, who struggles to overcome alcoholism. Between these two narratives, Wagamese lets the reader delve into the protagonist's psyche and explore the mysticism of Ojibwe spiritual tradition, reverence for nature, the important role family plays in our lives, the process of healing, and the complexities of reconnecting with family and community after long separation. He takes us on a long, winding journey exploring the impacts of foster care on Garnet Raven, daily life on the White Dog reserve, learning traditional values, and Garnet's intimate relationships with his family.
Wagamese is a wonderful narrator. As I read this novel, I often got the feeling that I was sitting on a plastic chair with sweat sticking my thighs, cracking beers in my neighbour's yard and sharing stories until the sun went down. I could imagine a friend with a big, toothy grin cracking up as they retold a story; then their eyes growing dark and hooded as they shared a more solemn remembrance with me. To stir up such a vivid feeling of confidence exhibits a great use of technique. Wagamese utilizes dialectical speech to help conjure this feeling throughout the novel and does it remarkably well. His humour is quintessentially Canadian and feels both innocent and familiar -
"I was a homeless Hawaiian for a while there in Niagara Falls. Had these flowered shirts I found at the Sally Ann, mirrored sunglasses on a rope around my neck, brushcut, and even got a beat up old ukulele at a pawnshop. We'd be drinkin' wine in the park and I'd be teaching people how to say things in fictituous Hawaiian and singing these dumb songs on that ukulele. Touching stuff like "KahmonIwannalayya," "Nookienookienow" or "The Best Leis Are Hawaiian" (pg. 22).
His simple, stripped-down writing is vivid, warm, and inviting. Wagamese thus transports his readers easily to wonderful camping spots, traditional breakfasts, and mornings canoeing -
"And what a morning. The sun was just coming up and the purple light was fading off, revealing mist on the bay and the circles of rising fish. There was more birds in the trees than I ever heard before and just beyond the mouth of the bay was a beaver hauling a long branch of poplar to his den somewhere further down the shoreline. The long dwindling Y in the water sent ripples right up to where my camp was. By the time I got the fire stoked up and going again the sun was completely up.
For me, breakfast in the bush is the greatest thing in the world. There's nothing quite like that first big slug of campfire coffee and the smell of bacon and eggs against the cold crispness of the air. I fished awhile and hooked a nice little pickerel from the pool and ate him up right away too" (pg. 240).
Wagamese focuses on the White Dog reserve as the primary setting, and it plays an important role in the novel by symbolizing the contrasts between traditional Ojibwe life and today's mainstream culture, as well as providing a backdrop to explore the difficulties in balancing tradition and spirituality with a fast-paced world. While at times Wagamese's descriptions of reserve life seem a little idealistic, I also found them to be refreshing and uplifting. Real problems do face our reserves, such as lack of clean water or educational facilities, but Wagamese chooses to focus almost entirely on the positive impacts of reserve life, only making subtle suggestions about its hardships. He describes how (when reserves are distanced from mainstream society) they can act as a safe, quiet haven from a busier, more complicated city life; how the closeness to wilderness and the simplicity of life can be balming to an injured spirit; and how the close, connected community provides meaningful support through life's hardships. This departure from the typical doom-and-gloom perspective presented by the media gives the reader a more positive outlook on our reserves and one that I think is much needed. It also serves as an important commentary by the author: that the dominant "white" culture fails to provide young people with spiritual guidance, meaningful supports, and a reverence for nature, leading to problems with addiction, a lack of self-awareness, failure to respect others, and environmental pollution.
Wagamese also uses Ojibwe beliefs to challenge mainstream conceptions of masculinity, demonstrating an alternative that balances masculinity with femininity. One that involves having the courage to cry, ask for help, and seek guidance; one that requires being able to admit to mistakes and weaknesses; one that involves hugging and demonstrating affection and gentleness; and one that is grounded on respect for others, family, tradition, and nature.
Keepern' Me leaves a lasting impression on the reader. It is a novel to pass away cool evenings with a cup of strong tea and a warm blanket. It will have a special meaning to those who have undergone their own healing journeys. It is deserving of its praise, particularly as a debut novel from Wagamese. It leaves something to savour and to reflect on. A worthy read.