Chris Benjamin Reviews Scratching River
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Scratching River is a powerful book of vignettes and reflections on the author’s autistic brother, who was abused in a group home, and an ancestor who wrote of his childhood on the buffalo hunt in the mid-1800s, as well as changing environmental features–prairie grass, the river, the animals.
In her afterword, Porter writes: “I wanted the stories and the different time periods to stand alongside each other not because the stories or their details in any way mirror each other, but because they share the same sky and the same Métis Nation. … their sources of strength and their ability to survive are constant.”
Her stories are of the drum, the river, the buffalo, relations, land and prairie grass. And while the times and events are not perfect mirror images, Porter expertly connects them from a personal perspective, in the process imbuing them with meaning. She also includes memory maps, current maps of key locations with marginalia, to illustrate the journey through time, space and events.
Essentially, this is a book about healing, of Michelle Porter’s brother, of herself and the rest of her family, of the Métis, of the land. Trauma and healing are the common threads.
She notes the importance, in her own healing, of reading the oral history of her ancestor, Louis Goulet, as recommended by an Auntie. Her memory maps are “a conversation between 14-year-old Michelle Porter and her ancestor … Louis Goulet’s oral history detailed deep cultural change and ecological grief, yet it is also a story about survival and of hope.”
Her brother’s journey was a more immediate influence, his trauma something that also traumatized her, after which decades passed before she found healing. “If my brother taught me how to heal from what happened to him in the twentieth century, Louis Goulet taught me how to heal from what happened to my ancestors over many centuries.”
Porter’s writing about the environment of the west, then and now, is evocative. Burdock root “smells … of righteous anger…rights denied and land stolen.” She explains that this burdock is barbed, that it gave name to what was once called Scratching River.
Colonialists changed the name, and the environment itself, in large part through their agriculture. “Sure,” she writes. “Their colonists relied on the buffalo hunt. But they preferred a farmer who stayed on one piece of land all year long, every year, ideally growing so much surplus that they’d make a profit for colonial coffers…” Nowadays conservation groups are trying to restore the prairie grass.
In writing of these two periods and sets of her family–the mid-1800s and the late 20th century when her brother was badly burned in a group home–Porter is as concerned with plants and animals and waterways. They become her family, and her family them. Of her mother, who was thrust into action in response to the attack on her son, Porter writes:
A fast-moving river…wants to carry everything along. Mama was always planning the next move … there are times when rivers stop flowing. Contributing to the stoppage are facts that include the meander of the river, the history of trauma written in the layers of rocks and sediment, the patterns of autism, schizophrenia, and poverty, and the way these braid themselves across the landscape, and the riverbank histories of the people [Porter’s brother] doesn’t know are his.
It’s no small artistic feat to weave together seemingly disparate materials until we the readers understand them, as the author seems to, as one entity, with one heartbeat. Matter of fact, it’s the kind of writing that could save us from our worst ideas.