“She nods but I don’t know if she knows yet, that men are good, strong, amazing and ordinary, but not everything. They can’t be. They are too busy doing other things, and she should be too.”
When a young indigenous woman is attacked on Winnipeg’s troubled North side, her family gathers around her hospital bed. Four generations of women close ranks, belatedly trying to protect their victimized relative. However, as they struggle to understand what has happened, the spectres of their own traumatic pasts begin to rise, demanding to be acknowledged at last. Officer Scott is the ambitious young Métis policeman dispatched with his partner to investigate the brutal assault. He sympathizes with the family, but his efforts to solve the case are hampered by the victim’s reluctance to speak up, and the roadblocks thrown up by his jaded, burnt-out partner. Many perspectives weave together as the truth about what really happened that night out on the Break unfolds.
The Break is the heart-wrenching story of a community that has been repeatedly torn apart by violence, as Winnipeg’s indigenous population struggles with the lingering effects of colonization. Through the skillful use of multiple narrative perspectives, Katherena Vermette illustrates how trauma accumulates and cascades down through the generations, becoming compounded as those who have been hurt try to raise the next generation of children, who cannot help but be affected by their parents’ pain, even when those parents do their best to shield their children from repeating their mistakes.
All of the women of the family this story centres on were such fully realized, sympathetic characters. They are daughters and sisters, aunts and cousins, friends and coworkers. Each woman has her own struggles, and difficult secrets or traumas in her past. Louisa’s partner of five years, and the father of her child, has just left her. After struggling for many years, Pauline has finally managed to overcome her instinctive distrust of men enough to allow her boyfriend to move in. Their mother Cheryl struggles with substance abuse, but she is proud of the fact that she has come so far and now runs an art gallery. Running underneath the most recent tragedy is a current of tension, a memory of the last time the family was hurt this way, when Cheryl’s sister Rain died. But they all shy away from thinking about it, and so Rain’s death is the shadow narrative that mirrors the latest tragedy.
The men in the story are more absences than presences, defined by leaving and separation. They too are all hurting in their own way, and in turn hurting others as they try to cope with their pain. They are not as clearly drawn as the women, but they are not monsters, either, but flawed human beings. Officer Scott is the only male point of view character, and is the most well-developed. He is Metis, but never actively identified himself as such until his girlfriend convinced him to check the box on the application form for the police academy. But now everyone in the department knows, and this case in particular forces him to begin coming to terms with the heritage he has avoided for so long.
The Break was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by comedian and broadcaster Candy Palmater. In her opening remarks, Palmater highlighted the way in which The Break illustrates the continuing effects of colonization on Canada’s indigenous people. This year’s Canada Reads theme is “the one book Canada needs now,” and Palmater argued that this is a book that can help heal the nation as the country’s 150th birthday approaches in July. She also highlighted the fact that The Break emerged as an early audience favourite in online polls and best seller lists.
Panelist Measha Brueggergosman tore into The Break with a reverse sexism line of argument that Candy Palmater admitted afterward she had never expected when she prepared to defend the book. Brueggergosman argued that The Break excluded men, and that there were no redeemable male characters. She found the instinctive distrust the women in the story had for men—a reaction born from their history of abuse—divisive. Jodi Mitic admitted that he did not relate to the book as a man. In her rebuttal, Palmater pointed to Officer Scott as an example of a positive male character, and tried to highlight the way in which The Break is intended to center and reflect the experiences of indigenous women, as well as the harm both men and women in that community have suffered in the fall out of colonization.
Unmoved my Palmater’s rebuttal and closing remarks, both Brueggergosman and Mitic voted against The Break when the time came to eliminate the first book of the competition. This created a tie with The Right to be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutier, which Palmater and Humble the Poet voted against. Chantal Kreviazuk—who initially voted against Company Town—was given the tie breaking vote. As the defender of The Right to be Cold, she of course did not vote against her own book. She reluctantly cast the vote that eliminated The Break, which she stated was her favourite book after her own. I was extremely disappointed to see this moving story about family, resilience, and healing eliminated so early in the competition, and on such a weak argument.
You might also like these past Canada Reads contenders:
Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz
Birdie by Tracey Lindberg