Katherena Vermette's The Strangers is a powerful story about family and perseverance — read an excerpt now
The Strangers is a finalist for the Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize
Katherena Vermette is a Métis writer from Winnipeg. Her other books include the poetry collections North End Love Songs and river woman, the novel The Break and the four-book graphic novel series A Girl Called Echo. North End Love Songs won the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry. The Break was a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction. It was defended by Candy Palmater on Canada Reads 2017.
Vermette's next novel is a follow-up to The Break, called The Strangers. It follows one family: sisters Cedar and Phoenix and their mother Elsie. After a stint in foster care, Cedar is now living with her father, who she barely knows. Phoenix is serving time in a youth detention centre, while Elsie is struggling with her addictions but is determined to turn her life around and reunite with her daughters.
"I wanted to write a family story. Something about a bunch of people who were fractured, seemingly broken, strikingly alone, but still all connected in one way or another. It's about blood memory or bone memory, the things we carry in our bodies from those who made us, all the good and bad if you want to call it that, all in there together making us who we are," Vermette told CBC Books via email.
The Strangers is a finalist for the $60,000 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. The winner will be announced on Nov. 3, 2021.
You can read an excerpt from The Strangers below.
"Can you believe it, Cedar-Sage?" Mama says. Her voice cracks so I can tell she's not really as happy as she's trying to seem. "You have a nephew! You're an aunty!"
I don't say anything, just push my annoying hair behind my ears and look down at my old leggings. There's a small mustard stain by my knee because I'm such a slob. I pick at it and don't look up. I want to be excited, but mostly I only feel sad. I pull the cuffs of my sweater down all awkward, pull them over my hands, and then remember to nod. Pretend I'm happy. For Mama. But I don't look up. I don't want to.
Mama sighs. Gets up and paces around the small room. I know what that means. She's getting impatient with me.
"There's no air in here," Mama says. "Don't they think to ventilate these rooms? We need air, for Christ's sakes."
She opens the old glass door and waves it back and forth like a fan. It does make a small breeze. The social worker sitting outside the door makes a face at the crazy woman waving the door around, but doesn't say anything.
I pull the cuffs of my sweater down all awkward, pull them over my hands, and then remember to nod. Pretend I'm happy. For Mama. But I don't look up. I don't want to.
Mama's been twitchy since she got here and now I know why. This big news. I wish I was excited about being an aunty, but really, what's there to be excited about? Phoenix had a baby and it got taken away. Phoenix is in jail now. Phoenix did a horrible thing and is jail for a long time. She had a baby but it went to live with its other Grandma. No one will even tell us where that is, or anything other than his name.
A sad name.
After our other sister. The little one. Who died.
"Well, I can't wait to meet him. I bet he looks like my Grandpa Mac. All the boys in our family look like him. Your Uncle Alex is like his spitting image. Your Uncle Toby, too." Mama does this every time we have a visit. Goes over family members I don't even know. I have blurry memories of living in the brown house and an old Grandmère, Mama's Grandma, my Great-Grandma, and another one, our actual Grandma who was named Margaret. I remember her a bit but only know her name 'cause Mama calls her.
"Babies are gifts, Cedar baby, gifts! Yeh, I can't wait to meet him." Mama paces around the room in that unnatural way she does and picks at a big sore on her lip. We only have another half-hour before the social worker will come get me and take me to my respite worker who will drive me back to my foster home. Foster place. Don't know why they call them homes. Never had one that was like a home. This one's better than the last one, I guess, but still. I got a room to myself, for the first time, and the lady there's nice enough. Luzia is her name. She cooks a lot and talks to the TV like a crazy person, but there's only one other girl there. Nevaeh. She's a year older than me and acts all hard. Runs away a lot and stuff.
To be honest, I don't know how to get excited about a baby I doubt I'll ever get to meet. Another family member I'll know about only 'cause someone told me about them. Named a sad name.
If I'm really honest, I'd admit I want to go now. Mama's making me anxious and is probably going to get worse. She seemed fine when we got here, twitchy but put together enough for our first visit in almost a year. But now, who knows. She must be on something, or maybe hasn't been on something in too long. I used to be able to tell which was which, but it's been so long I don't really know her moods anymore. Or her drugs.
"Cedar-Sage, Cedar baby, don't get all attitude with me now. Just 'cause you're a teenager now doesn't mean you have to act like one. I need you to say something. I can't, I can't stand you just sitting there."
Mama's voice cracks over the words. She sits down across from me and nervously puts her hand on my knee. "I— I love you so much, my girl."
I want to reach out and hug her but I wait for a minute, to be sure. I used to be really good at being what Mama wanted, needed. I was always happy when she wanted me to be. Talkative when she wanted to listen, quiet when she needed quiet. I was always that way. But can't seem to do it this time. I did feel happy when I first got here. When I first saw her, I smiled so wide I felt like a goof. Was so glad to hug and feel her arms around me. I even had a bit of that crazy little kid hope I used to, that this would be the time, finally the time that they would tell us we could go home and Mama would take me to our real home to live. Then I felt how skinny she is, how sick and wrecked she looks. And I knew. Again. Just like so many of the things I want, or used to hope for, it was never going to happen.
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When I finally look up, Mama is staring at the wall, all big eyed and stoned looking. She does that when she's upset, goes far away.
"I love you, too, Mama." My voice is small and rough. I was going to say more but she looks up too quickly, sucking on her cut lip like she's trying to hide it. Like nothing is wrong at all. Then jumps up again.
"Okay? I'm just going to go grab a coffee."
I don't say anything. Don't have to. "Be right back, Cedar baby." The door closes slowly behind her. Doors don't slam here. They just close slow, as if with a sigh.
This is her third cup of coffee in the last hour. If Mama could, she'd go down and have a smoke too, but she can't do that anymore. When we used to visit regularly, back when Sparrow was alive, the first Sparrow, Mama used to take lots of smoke breaks during visits. She said she needed them because the whole thing broke her heart so much, but they stopped all that a few years ago. For safety reasons. For everybody. So instead, she's twitchy the whole time, needing a smoke, waiting to be able to go for one.
Maybe that's the only thing that's wrong with her, that she needs a smoke.
I know cigarettes are bad for people. I've seen so many videos at school about what happens when you smoke, a new one every year, complete with an assembly and a cancer survivor, or a cancer victim's loved one, and a warning of how we can all die. They once showed an old man's lungs all sick and black all the way through. That's probably what Mama's lungs look like now. Sick. All the way through.
But I also know there are things worse than cigarettes. They have assemblies about some of those too. They go over different drugs and warnings of how we could all die, like that's the worst thing. They never seem to know the whole story. Only a small part. Not everything.
I don't know how to get excited about a baby I doubt I'll ever get to meet. Another family member I'll know about only 'cause someone told me about them.
I sit there all quiet for a while, looking around the small room. I don't like this one. It looks dirty and feels worse. The paint is chipped in the corners, and the chairs smell like sweat. The wooden arms all scratched up — someone knifed on mine: Rita was here 1992.
I always liked the big room down the hall better. It was cleaner. Had a couch, a TV, and a big painting of an eagle with its wings stretched out far and brown. That one's for big families though, and now it's only me and Mama.
We used to go in the big room when we first started coming here. Back when we were visiting regularly. When we were first in care, we'd visit every month. Back then, we were always so happy to see each other. It was like Christmas every time. Mama was in treatment and normal, and Phoenix was in a group home in West St. Paul. I remember missing and loving them both so much. Phoenix missed me too. She'd always give me a hug so big and so long I thought she'd never let me go. She'd hug me before she hugged anyone else. Even Sparrow who was so small she'd cling to my side for the first bit, unsure about Phoenix and Mama, as if they were strangers. Phoenix would tell us all about all the crazy kids she was living with at the group home, and before that, at the hotel. She always had lots of funny stories. Or made them funny by how she told them. Phoenix was always really good at that. Mama was usually pretty quiet. She'd go out for her smoke breaks and cry too much, but she was always calm and clean. In those days.
Now Phoenix is a mama, too. Well, she is but she isn't. Her baby. This new Sparrow is not even going to know her. Is not going to know any of us. At least with me, I always knew my mama and remembered living with her. We all lived together for a long time. For Phoenix's baby, it's worse.
Excerpted from The Strangers by Katherena Vermette. Copyright © 2021 Katherena Vermette. Published by Hamish Hamilton Canada, an imprint of Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.