Is it a spoiler to give away a pivotal plot point even if it happens really early on — say on page 23 — and you really want to talk about it?
Yes, I guess it is. So I won’t reveal the “unthinkable loss” mentioned on the back of David A. Robertson’s beautiful new book, The Evolution of Alice.
Robertson’s build up to this event is a captivating slow burn with just a hint of foreshadowing. You might likely even guess what is going to happen — but you will still be devastated when it does.
With conversational, almost folksy storytelling, Robertson captures the gut-wrenching horror of tragedy ripping in to what is supposed to be your family’s safe space, tearing everyone’s life apart.
Sounds dark, and it is. But the book is ultimately uplifting because Robertson weaves in love and hope and healing without one ounce of false sentimentality.
The book is really about Alice’s — and a community’s — search for grace.
Alice is a single mom with three little girls living in a trailer on a reserve in Manitoba. Her abusive ex is locked up in Stony and she is dealing with the ripple effects on her daughters. She is just starting to build a safe world for them when this tragedy hits.
Her community on the reservation is also looking for grace in the wake of a rash of young girls killing themselves.
Several characters have supernatural experiences involving both Christian and Aboriginal spirits. Robertson’s supernatural twists are ethereal and otherworldly while staying grounded in a visceral reality.
Alice’s desperate longing for an angel to bring her peace is contrasted with her rejection of the real flesh and blood people who could help her find that redemption.
But she learns you can’t run away from your pain, and you can’t change the past. It is a lesson characters of all ages and backgrounds learn in different ways through the book. As Alice’s young niece, grieving several classmates’ suicides, comes to realize: “if there were bad spirits there were good ones, and if there were demons there most certainly were angels…The following night she would pray the good spirits would visit her auntie…because brightness caused brightness. It was simple momentum.”
While this is a book rooted firmly in life on a reservation, it is universal in its message of forgiveness, of grace, of growth.
Robertson has a profound and thought-provoking ability to take big issues and make them intimate. He is the author of several graphic novels including 7 Generations: A Plains Cree Saga. The graphic novel deals with, among other things, the legacy of residential schools. He wrote The Life of Helen Betty Osborne, the story of a young aboriginal woman murdered 43 years ago.
Robertson first published Osborne’s story in 2008. He has just put the finishing touches on a new version. I emailed him to ask him why he felt this was important, and what he hoped readers would take from a new book.
“I wanted to illustrate the randomness of her death, how it could have been anybody (as long as it was an indigenous woman), and she was in the wrong place and the wrong time. More than that, she was, in the place she was in and the time she was in, the wrong gender and the wrong culture. That’s horrible, but true.”
Since he wrote the first version, Robertson has honed his skills writing 14 more graphic novels. He hopes his growth as a storyteller will help give a “fresher, more contemporary perspective on the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women.”