Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s historical memoir Following the River: Traces of Red River Women

Although I don’t have a reading list per se, I have one shelf of books that I really want to get to. Bookends on the coffee table hold seven or eight novels that are a little higher priority, and there are at least four more books – fiction and non-fiction – on the side table that are partly read.

But sometimes one book compels you to finish it and leads you (inexorably) to others that are new to you so that the list gets put aside. Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s historical memoir, “Following the River: Traces of Red River Women,” (2017) leads me towards Maria Campbell’s “Halfbreed,” Gregory Scofield’s “Louis: The Heretic Poems,” Wab Kinew’s “The Reason You Walk,” and Richard Wagamese’s “Indian Horse.”

Lorri Neilsen Glenn is on a personal quest to learn more about her Métis ancestors, in particular her great-grandmother Catherine Couture, who died in a fire on the lake steamer SS Premier in 1908 at Warren’s Landing near the northern tip of Lake Winnipeg. A simple enough quest, you might have thought.

However, white men wrote most of the surviving documents, in which Aboriginal women are scarcely mentioned, and then often disparagingly. Glenn goes as far back as her five-times great-grandmother and as she spends hours in hot archival rooms, as she traces sunken words on old gravestones and reads a cairn near the Nelson River, she is dogged by imperialism, racism, sexism and classism. The Riel uprisings, the residential schools and Helen Betty Osborne’s murder rise from the pages in all their horror.

She also writes about the dignity, reticence, kindness and adaptability of Métis people confronted by the double theft of land and culture. She finds cousins in Norway House, having driven alone through hundreds of kilometers of forest, part of the way with a bear’s muddy paw prints on her car window. She struggles with language: Norway House, Kinosêwisîpiy, river with a lot of fish. Although she loses her sense of direction in some of the Red River towns, she never does so when she’s describing her quest, whether in prose or poetry: she has a sure and sensitive hand as she places on the page the fragments that embody her hard-won knowledge.

She wonders if we all carry within us stories that haunt us, that aren’t lost, only impossible to retrieve. I am grateful for and enriched by her passion and inquiry, her persistence and insight.

So add this book to your high-priority pile. And yes, there are far too many books and far too little time – but don’t you think that’s a wonderful dilemma to have?