Hamish Hamilton, September 2021
Mothers — they’re a force that can either be a light in the darkness of childhood or one that pulls you further into reckless confusion. Some mothers are both. Either way, I suggest giving yours a call after reading Katherena Vermette’s newest book, The Strangers. It is one of those novels that creeps on you slowly, then hits you all at once. It forces you to realize that as much as you might resent it, you are your mother’s child. At least it did for me.
“You just will. You’ll end up hating it. For having it”from The Strangers
“I’m not going to hate my kids, Mom. I’m not you.”
In The Strangers, Vermette weaves a story of matriarchal struggles, intergenerational trauma, addiction, resentment, and despair with pinches of vibrant emotion and masterful storytelling. Author of the bestselling and award-winning novel The Break, Vermette continues the story of the Stranger family in this highly anticipated and equally heartbreaking sequel. As she expertly weaves Métis culture and Indigenous storytelling with powerful language, there are times her words feel like a punch to the gut. It’s no surprise she took home the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry for her first book North End Love Songs.
The Strangers follows Ceder-Sage, her sister Phoenix, her mother Elsie, and her grandmother Margaret in a tale that spans multiple lifetimes. It weaves back and forth through time and ultimately answers most questions The Break left open-ended.
This book is about intergenerational trauma and the racist systems in Canada that cause these traumas to resurface, no matter how hard people try to escape them. Four women, each at different points of their lives, deal with trauma and abuse they should never have faced.
A combination of poetry and fiction, this book reads like waves running over rocks. The sentences flow easily, back and forth, short and long. The paragraphs bleed into each other with perfectly crafted sentences that I read through tear-smeared ink.
“Margaret used to think this was normal, that all families were made up of so many sad stories. But as she got older, it seemed only Indians, Mètis, who had sorrow built into their bones, who exchanged despair as ordinarily as recipes, who had devastation after devastation after dismissal after denial woven into their skin. As if sad stories were the only heirloom they had to pass on.”
Even my least favourite parts were beautiful.
The first chapter opens with Phoenix, a character from The Break, going into labour with her first child while in jail. The language Vermette uses in this chapter is, to put it lightly, colourful. I could feel the anxiety build in my stomach at every iteration of the word fuck. That fucking word was written at least twice in every fucking sentence.
I realized about halfway through the scene that the discomfort I felt mimicked the pain and suffering the characters were going through. My own discomfort echoed Pheonix’s pain.
But this is what Vermette does best. When Margaret blamed her family for being ungrateful as she scraped leftover food from the nights’ dishes, I could feel the sponge in her hand moving back and forth on the pan. I could smell the caked-on Tuesday roast and the soapy water sloshing from the sink, see her upper lip curl in my mind’s eye. Vermette doesn’t need to tell us her characters are angry — because we already feel it before we even know why. Margaret’s anger rippled through the women in her family decades after she died, and I felt it too. Vermette makes us feel that we are the culmination of hundreds of past lives and all the trauma and hurricane-like anger that goes with it.
Someone once told me I am so much like my mom. I think the look of surprise on my face ensured they never said that again, not out loud at least. Why does a comparison to our mothers make some of us feel a soup of shame, shock, and recognition? Why does it make me feel so vulnerable? But that’s what our mothers do. Mine does. She forces me to realize that I am only human, because she is only human, despite how high she sat on my childhood pedestal. Reading The Strangers was a stark reminder that every perceived injustice brought to me by my mother was the product of how her mother — and the world — treated her. And her mother’s mother before that. The sad stories that “were the only heirlooms they had to pass on.”
I recommend this book to anyone looking to understand what intergenerational trauma means. If you want to stare down the barrel of what systemic racism does to a family, read The Strangers — you won’t regret it.