Content Warnings: Substance abuse, self-harm, sexual violence, child abuse.
“My words belonged to me. They were the only thing I had that was mine. And I didn’t trust anyone enough to share them.”
From the Ashes is the account of an unstable childhood, intergenerational trauma, and a young adulthood lost to the streets. After being abandoned by parents who struggled with their own demons, Jesse Thistle and his two brothers landed in the home of their paternal grandparents, where the boys were expected to work hard, were scolded for eating too much, or for any behaviour that reminded their grandfather of their wayward father. A lacklustre student, Thistle dropped out of high school, and was kicked out of his grandparents’ home when they caught him with drugs, beginning a decade-long downward spiral into homelessness and addiction. From the Ashes recounts his troubled childhood, his lost years on the streets, and his eventual recovery and journey into academia and Indigenous Studies.
Thistle’s chapters are often short and somewhat fractured, an accurate reflection of a disjointed life punctuated by black outs. It is a chronicle of poor choices informed by pain, loneliness, and heartbreak. Occasional interludes are more like poems, including a disturbing section in which Thistle envisions turning into a wendigo who then cannibalizes himself. Thistle’s account begins with crushing images of childhood poverty, including toddlers drinking half-empty beers (“brown pop”) because they were hungry, and trying to eat a raw turnip. Before disappearing onto the streets himself, Thistle’s father spent all their money on drugs and alcohol, and taught his three young sons to beg and steal to feed themselves.
Thistle has a knack for striking images. Early in the book, he describes himself homeless and addicted on the streets of Ottawa, fishing change out of the fountain surrounding the capital’s Centennial Flame. He is half-heartedly pursued by an RCMP officer who is obligated to chase him off, but less than invested in the endeavour. Occasionally his imagery can be overwhelming, such as gut-wrenching descriptions of medical horror. Thistle broke multiple bones after he fell off the side of a building, attempting to break into his brother’s apartment for shelter. On the streets, staying in homeless shelters, smoking against medical advice, his wounds became infected to the point that he was at risk of losing his leg. Eventually he deliberately committed a crime and turned himself in, in order to be sent to jail where he would have stable housing and medical care while his injuries healed.
From the Ashes was the only one of the Canada Reads 2020 titles that I listened to as an audiobook, simply because that was the only format I could get my hands on before the program was initially supposed to air back in March. The audiobook is performed by the author, who has a slow, extremely measured speaking voice. I don’t tend to speed up my audiobooks, as I prefer to listen at speaking speed, but for the first time ever, I listened to the entire audiobook at 1.25x. As this is published, I am currently rereading it in print form and overall would recommend reading over listening.
From the Ashes was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by country musician George Canyon, who appeared via video link from his home near Calgary. In his opening statement, Canyon highlighted the book as a hard story, but also one that is about love and redemption. Of the writing style, he spoke to its personal feel, saying that he felt like he was sitting down to coffee and hearing the life story of a brother, to the point that it felt rude to put down the book and interrupt the conversation. He lauded the uninhibited writing, and the vulnerability Thistle demonstrated in sharing such experiences. During his closing, he admitted that the book made him cry more than once, and held Thistle up as an inspiration for everyone.
With two novels and two memoirs left at the table, a debate ensued about building empathy through fiction and non-fiction, and which form is more effective. As the defender, Canyon argued for the realism of non-fiction, saying that it could not be dismissed as “just fiction” or not real, and that it would therefore be better at creating empathy. Alayna Fender advocated hard for the value of fiction, and the ability to identify with fictional characters, because you do not separate yourself from them in the same way you maintain separation from a person you know to be real. The fiction vs. non-fiction debate is a common sticking point in Canada Reads debates when both are brought to the table, and will likely remain an issue this week as one memoir and two novels remain.
Host Ali Hassan directed the conversation back into the hands of Indigenous panelist Kaniehtiio Horn, who incited controversy on Day One by referring to From the Ashes as “trauma porn.” Horn is championing the other Indigenous book at the table, Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson. She clarified that she felt that From the Ashes appealed to a non-Indigenous audience, and that for Indigenous readers, it would actually be all-too-familiar and even triggering to read. She agreed that the book could help build empathy, but also pointed to the idea that it might be so appealing because it holds up a colonial idea of success. Certainly Canyon’s choice to call Thistle inspirational points to that appeal factor playing into his choice.
When it came time to cast the ballots, once again the vote split down gender lines, with George Canyon and Akil Augustine voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. The accessibility of Coles’ writing remained a matter of hot debate on Day Two, and Augustine once again raised the subject of Coles having an axe to grind and whether or not people would actually read her story as a result. On the other side, Alayna Fender, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel voted together to make From the Ashes the second book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2020. As Jael Richardson brought up, with this elimination, Canada Reads 2020 is set to make history this week. Never in the history of Canada Reads has a woman defending a woman’s book won the debates.