Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
The original French version of this short novel was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2018. Now that it’s out in English, we anglophones can finally appreciate why.
Briefly, Manikanetish is the story of a young Innu woman, Yammie, who returns to her birthplace of Uashat, the native reserve next to the city of Sept-Îles, Quebec, to teach high school. She has been away from Uashat for fifteen years and has just finished her studies to be a teacher. Her subject is French, which many of the students don’t speak or write very well.
The novel covers Yammie’s first year as a teacher on the reserve. The chapters are short—seldom more than three pages—and each one focuses on one person or event, in particular her grade eleven students (grade eleven being the last year of high school in Quebec). Those students are all Innu, and, indeed, some of their problems arise from being native in a White society. But other challenges are those that are common among adolescents of all kinds: smoking, drinking, drugs, rebellion, and so on. Yammie has personal issues as well, having left her boyfriend back in Quebec City, eight hours away by car.
In the middle of the school year, Yammie is given the assignment of directing a new school project: putting on a play. She chooses Le Cid, by the seventeenth-century French tragedian Pierre Corneille. This is an odd choice, to be sure—a period drama with the difficult, often stilted three-and-a-half-centuries-old language. But this proves to be a good bet, as the students, despite their initial reluctance, take to their roles with increasing enthusiasm.
Because Yammie grew up in the White environment of Quebec City, taken there from Uashat by her mother when she was young, she is not used to the norms and expectations of Innu life in the reserve. Her command of Innu is admittedly not good, and some of what her students consider taken for granted in life is uncomfortable for her. So is the tight-knitted quality of Innu life, where families are often large with strong ties to each other. Yammie has a number of cousins but barely knows them.
So, as Yammie learns about life in Uashat, so does the reader. Although much in Innu life is different from life in non-native Quebec, it is not foreign. Indeed, Fontaine’s skill is that she is able to show that the values of the Innu community are in fact quintessentially Quebec. The Innu value family, nature, and tradition, just like those who are pure laine—and the rest of us too, to be sure. Contrary to what many would think, the Innu Fontaine describes are not trapped in the past by those values. Rather, they use them to celebrate the present and build a foundation for the future.
While the chapters are short—and thus cannot include the sort of extended descriptions of people and places that another author might have included—in author Fontaine’s hands (the translation by Luise von Flotow is beautifully faithful to the rhythms of the original French), this brevity somehow makes the emotional power of the narrative greater as the character endure a mother’s death from cancer, a student’s suicide, teenage pregnancy, loneliness, and hopelessness.
Yet in the end, this is a very uplifting book. Its pages relate the struggles a teacher faces in trying to influence the lives of young people in a positive way, and they likewise celebrate the joy that comes with doing so successfully.
Manikanetish is published by House of Anansi Press.