Published: September 7, 2021 by: Penguin Random House Canada
Rating: 5/5 stars
CW: inter-generational trauma, violence and racism against Indigenous women, addiction
The Strangers have fallen victim to a fractured system that seeks to tear Indigenous families apart. After moving from foster home to foster home, Cedar Stranger moves in with her estranged father and his new family. She struggles to fit into his life when all she wants is to be reunited with her sisters. Phoenix Stranger has just had a baby while being detained in a youth detention centre. She is worried that she will never know what freedom feels like, and she suffers mistreatment and abuse while being incarcerated. Elsie Stranger, the matriarch of the Stranger family, has lost two of her daughters, and turns to drugs and alcohol to cope through the trauma her family has gone through, while still trying to care for the youngest Stranger daughter, Sparrow. The Stranger women have been through too much in just a short amount of time, and they work towards being reunited, if the system will allow them to.
The Strangers is a companion novel to Vermette's book The Break, which follows an accident that occurred in a small Indigenous community and how each resident witnessed the accident. However, you do not have to read that book first before going into The Strangers. Still, if you wish to revisit the characters in this book, The Break is also an extremely well-written text. The Strangers was a heart-wrenching book about familial ties and the resilience of Indigenous women even when the Canadian government has put in place systems to tear them down. I found myself going through a range of emotions within every page, and I kept wanting to turn the page and learn more about this family and if they would ever know peace. This book does deal with some heavy subject matter, so do please be careful, but overall, I found it to be a very valuable piece of work.
Inter-generational trauma is a common topic explored in a lot of books by Indigenous authors, as sadly many Indigenous families in North America faced abuse at the hands of the government through things like residential schools and the Sixties Scoop. Vermette chooses to explore inter-generational trauma by using multiple perspectives from the same family. It is interesting to see Elsie's point of view, compared to that of her daughters. In particular, since not all of these family members live together, I got to explore how these women's environments impacted their social and physical wellbeing. Cedar being forced into the home of her father who she has never really known, and seeing that he has moved on in a way and developed a new family, was a really poignant moment, as I got to see how Cedar develops an understanding of family and what she can do to strengthen her's.
Phoenix's point of view from the setting of a youth detention facility was a really integral part to the book. There has historically been an influx of the incarceration of Indigenous Peoples in Canadian detention centres. Phoenix is still a teenager, and yet she is forced to grow up too quickly by not only going to prison, but also having a baby while incarcerated. Vermette really explores how birth is already a traumatic experience, and is made even more traumatic by Phoenix not having autonomy over her body while she gives birth. While I don't know much about the correctional system in Canada, I could tell that this book was meticulously researched and taught me more about youth facilities and how Phoenix is both serving time for a very serious crime, but she is also the victim of crime herself. That connection between causing hurt but also being hurt yourself was made very clear in this book.
Many Indigenous communities rely on matriarchies within their familial systems. The Stranger family is no exception. However, this emphasis on matriarchy is made complicated when Elsie is told that she is not fit to be a matriarch due to her struggles with addiction. But, these struggles did not turn up out of nowhere, rather they are a symptom of a continuous cycle of abuse that affected Elsie and the women before her. I really felt for Elsie. I wanted her to get better, but I also understood how difficult it would be for her to get to a place of healing. Still, she fights for her daughters, and in there lies her strength. I appreciated learning about Elsie's story, but I also understood that her story was not fictional, and is actually the reality for many Indigenous women in North America.
Overall, I would encourage everyone to read The Strangers. While it is difficult to get through, if you are wanting to learn more about some of the issues faced by Indigenous women in Canada, then this book is a great start. Vermette is a powerful author and I am always privileged to read her work.
Have you read The Strangers? What did you think?
Emily @ Paperback Princess