‘Winter Child’ by Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau, Trans. by Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Patricia Robertson

Winter Child is the first book by Québec writer Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau, who is of Cree and Algonquin origin, to be translated to English. Winter Child is not so much a novel as a long prose poem, by turns dreamy and matter-of-fact, in which a mother addresses her long-dead father, telling him of the death of her adult son. It’s also a lightly fictionalized memoir, a mother’s—and a writer’s—attempt to pin her deeply loved child to paper, to immortalize him, as the dedication indicates: For my son Simon, that he may live always. As an anonymous Greek mother says in a lament recorded in Lives of the Saints, “Alas that I should see your end, I who hoped to be nursed in my old age by you, and by your hopes!” That reversal of the normal course of events—the mother burying the son—is given both a contemporary and a Canadian context here as the narrator examines the shards of her Cree and Métis past and how her ancestral suffering has shaped both her own life and that of her son’s.

The boy—unnamed in the book—is seemingly doomed from the start. Born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, he resists life as the doctor struggles to revive him until “at last the baby uttered a first tentative croak like a frog unsure of spring’s arrival.” Two months later he nearly burns up from a high fever until his mother plunges him in ice water throughout the night. The reluctant “winter child,” as his mother terms him—he’s born during an early snowfall in late September—grows into adulthood reluctantly too, pursued by the inherited demon of alcohol. The mother remembers her own parents’ drinking binges, her mother’s abandonment that she herself will repeat with her son and his sister, her Métis father trapped by his memories of compulsory service in World War II. “You welcomed the chance to be a warrior defending your country,” she tells her father in the present, but “afterward, you carried the war inside you for the longest time, handing it down to us in the shape of constant worry, chronic insecurity: never turn your back, be wary of the ground you walk on … never breathe easy.”

Carrying the war inside is also what the son does—literally as well as metaphorically, since epigenetics has shown how trauma can be inherited. This is a narrator hyper-aware of the tyranny of the past, picking it apart and reassembling it in a kind of prose collage as she seeks to understand. There are times when this analysis feels distancing, over-thought, yet there’s also a powerful tension as the narrator is pulled between the recent and distant past, between son and father. The author’s long breathless sentences, piling one phrase on the next, give an urgency to her telling that is ably captured by co-translators Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli.

Pésémapéo Bordeleau’s eye for painterly detail—she’s also an internationally recognized visual artist—is evident in the mother’s intensely felt scenes with her adult son. When he hitchhikes to visit her in the small northern Québec village where she’s living, she tells him matter-of-factly that he’ll have to sleep with her, because she only has one mattress. In the light of the kerosene lamp she sees “his steel-blue eyes … the eyes she’d wished for him, a utopia, since no one else in her family bore the sky in their gaze.” But as they lie beside each other he begins to weep, revealing that his girlfriend—his first and ultimately only real love—has left him for another man, and the mother finds herself comforting him again as if he were still a child. Later, when he lies dying in a hospital bed from alcohol abuse, she plays along when he travels back in time, asking her to join him in a visit to a remembered place. When he refuses to drive because “No way, Maman, I’m not old enough!” she “invited him to take a seat and buckle up, described the sites I knew throughout our imaginary outing, like the snack bar we stopped at where he agreed to drink the tea the nurse brought in.”

Pésémapéo Bordeleau moves with great assurance from the first-person narrator who addresses her dead father to third-person scenes between mother and son, interspersed with occasional episodes imagined from the point of view of the son or an observer. The final section of the book is a kind of pas de deux between mother and son in which he addresses her from the afterlife. “Sleep in peace, ma mère,” he tells her. “Don’t try to understand, instead live, walk toward the horizon you see each morning … I’m at peace now, utterly free and content.” It’s a peace that feels earned, if hard-won, in this intense and searing novel that ends as it begins, with a birth, or rather a rebirth—this time of the mother/narrator, who must create a new self in the wake of her son’s death.

Early in the story she recounts a recurring dream of a man like a “prayer card saint,” a stranger who first appears to her in her youth, a month before the death of her oldest brother. “I’ll stand behind you always,” he tells her, and she calls him “her lifeline, my North Star, my guide on the march when one world has ended.” I suspect that Pésémapéo Bordeleau is still finding support from this dream stranger in this book illuminated by imagination, dream and memory, a keening in lyrical prose that finally refuses guilt or despair and embraces life’s brokenness instead.

Freehand | 200 pages | $21.95 | paper | ISBN 978-1988298061

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Patricia Robertson

Patricia Robertson came to Winnipeg as the 2015-2016 Writer-in-Residence at the Millennium Public Library. Her most recent book is The Goldfish Dancer: Stories and Novellas.