Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
Three women, each with a secret. It is late 1968 in Regina, Saskatchewan. Elinor Greystone, a widowed Cree woman, is 90 years old. She has never told a soul, even her late husband, that when she was a teenager she had a child. She was raped at one of the infamous boarding schools Native children were sent to in order to “civilize” them. As soon as she gave birth, the baby was taken away. All she has is a photograph of the newborn that one of the nuns at the school was kind enough to give her. Elinor has always called the baby “Bright Eyes.” And now, knowing that death cannot be far away, Elinor has decided she must find her.
Elinor is an artist, and still draws and paints. She does not live on the reservation. Instead she has her own small house on the outskirts of Regina. But the world she lives in is one where the spirits of the land and the sky surround her. The deer come to her backyard, and they let her touch them. The wind is a friend. The stuffed bison in the museum watches this frail old woman as she sketches him and reflects on his own lost freedom. He wags his tail. She hears him grunt. Their pasts merge.
Elinor confides to her granddaughter, Alice, that she needs to find her lost baby. Alice, a teacher who has her own secret—a female lover—takes this information to her mother, Louise. Louise has always had a difficult relationship with Elinor, stemming from the time the teenaged Louise ran away from the reservation and never returned. By leaving, Louise tried to reject the hopelessness and squalor she grew up with. But she also rejected the uniqueness and the positive side of tribal life and fell into a different sort of squalor. The truth of how she escaped that life, she holds inside.
Now a lawyer and married to a white man, Louise reluctantly agrees to help find Bright Eyes. The search proceeds, and it prompts each woman to reconsider herself—as a person, as a woman, and as a Native. Elinor becomes ill and is hospitalized, but she flees and hitchhikes to Ontario, where her strength gives out. The fruitlessness of undertaking such a search after over seventy years—when records of illegitimate Native births, if they were kept at all, were likely to have been long lost—brings Elinor to the brink of giving in, until a telephone call makes it all real.
Debut novelist Archer, who has previously published short stories in the Dalhousie Review, among other publications, creates multiple layers of narrative to illustrate not just how each woman wrestles with her secret, but also to bring out the different ways each deal with a particular loss and acquires a better sense of who she is. Past mistakes are accepted, if regretfully, and each in her own way adapts to living in a White world while accepting the insistent resonance of their Native ancestry.
The treatment of Elinor’s Native spirituality, though risky, adds a convincing dimension to the characters that makes this a story not just about a Native family, but of them. The author’s hand is light, though, and she resists being more aggressive and detailed in talking about the horrors of the boarding schools and the dispute over the development of a Native gravesite. She keeps her touch personal, not political, and thus the story stays more intimate and all the more forceful.
Tears in the Grass is published by Dundurn Press.