***This is going to be both a review of a novel dealing with violence against women and girls, as well as a discussion about alcohol use and abuse both within Indigenous communities and within the CAF. These are uncomfortable subjects and I think I managed to discuss it with care and tact, but be warned nevertheless.***
“The hospital room is hot and full. Cheryll is weary and sits in a plastic chair next to the plush one where her old mom dozes. She can feel the heat rising inside and all around her. She pulls off her coat but still feels it, panic growing. She’s sweating. She can feel the cigarette and booze seeping through her pores and feels gross. Gross and hot. She wants to pull off her clothes and throw the window open but she only breathes out, trying to slow her breath and make the gasps as quiet as she can.”
The novel ‘The Break’ by Katherina Vermette follows an extended family of Indigenous people living in modern day Winnipeg. The majority of the point of view characters are women, with several of the men in their lives being either absent or dead. Although the story will eventually range across various events throughout their lives, the main centres around the present day when one of their daughters falls victim to a terrible act of violence.
As I’ve said before, I’m ‘white’ and a middle-class male, and I’ve lived in pretty safe neighbourhoods of Ottawa for most of my life. But I found myself relating to the characters in the story. These were people I had seen before. In the army. The connections are in the trauma and the alcohol.
As a Reserve Forces Sergeant, one of the things I recommend for young troops is to put in some time at Gagetown where the combat arms schools are based. It’s a great way for them to build their skills as soldiers, but I have to warn them about the culture shock that comes with working in a Regular Force unit. It’s not that the Militia’s sheltered (I’ve met recruits with stories that could turn your hair grey) but there’s a kind of shock that comes when you first work in an organization where being fucked up is standardized.
It’s not quite as intense as it was during the Afghan War, but trauma hovers over the military like a barely seen spectre. It’s always there, and the closer you work with combat troops (or at least troops who deploy regularly) the more visible it becomes. I’m not talking the generic notions of ’sacrifice’ that you hear politicians talk about, but specific losses and specific events. The IED attack, the mine strike, the ambush. The attack that was more personal than the rest. The loss that meant more.
In ‘The Break’ the matriarch of the family is named Flora, although she’s called Kookom (grandmother) by pretty much everyone in the family from her daughter to her great granddaughter. Her eldest daughter Cheryl is an artist and works at a local gallery. Both women are living with the memory of Lorraine (‘Rain’), Kookom’s second daughter. Now gone.
Cheryl has two daughters of her own, Louisa (‘Lou’) and Pauline (‘Paul’) both of whom are single mothers. Lou has two boys (Jake and Gabriel Jr) and has just lost Gabriel, the father of her second. Paul has a daughter Emily and is in the first blush of a new relationship with a man named Peter.
Further to this is Stella, orphaned(?) daughter of Rain who has largely drifted away from her cousins as she married and moved into a better part of town. Although as events unfold she will be drawn back into her old family through an unexpected connection.
All of the women are hurting to some degree, and as the story unfolds we begin to learn how exactly. Cheryl has had to raise two daughters in a dangerous part of Winnipeg largely on her own, haunted by the fate of her sister. Her two daughters (who grow up close Stella before she marries and moves away) manage to reach adulthood safely but not without trauma. As young native girls they grow up with the spectre of creepy, predatory men hovering around them and in one devastating episode from their early teens, a close friend of theirs is sexually assaulted at a party.
Now with children of their own, they live with the fear. That their sons might join gangs, that their daughters might be raped. Stella seems to have chosen escape as her coping mechanism, until in the opening pages she looks out her window one night and witnesses an act of violence that leaves her nearly hysterical as she tries to summon the police. Lou became a social worker, while Paul became a nurse.
At the beginning of the novel as they are visiting with their mother Cheryl at the local native art gallery, Lou ponders her ending relationship while Paul looks forward hopefully to a new romance. The women talk, and the wine flows. Their mother Cheryl gives them both the best advice she can, trying to be as patient as possible while fielding calls from her own mother and dealing with the other Indigenous artists at the gallery.
The evening ends with Cheryl and a couple of her friends going off to the bar, while Lou, who has already had a few too many, makes her way home. In the story, especially early on before a new trauma mobilizes them, alcohol flows down the paths laid by old trauma.
And this is where I found my connection to the novel. Alcohol and trauma. We got an impressive alcohol culture in the CAF. It’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be (with beer vending machines in the shacks), but it’s still pretty impressive and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t love it.
As the story progressed and this collection of women I should otherwise have little in common with awaken to a disaster that befalls them on this fateful night, I found I could see myself and my buddies throughout the years. Shit happens, so you drink. Then shit really happens and suddenly you’re hung over as fuck and trying to deal with it.
The CAF is an institution that’s soaking in alcohol, and it’s also one that’s soaking in trauma.
Like I said before, it was especially visible when the Afghan War was on. Especially when I was on work up training. Some guys we were training with got hit hard on their tours, and they’d be drinking hard. All of us new guys would be there drinking with them. Sometimes they’d tell us about it, but if not you’d be able to see nevertheless. Hundreds of men and women carrying their own personal spectres of trauma and suffering. Thousands more carrying lesser spectres coming from proximity; living with those who have suffered. And when the alcohol flows these stories come to the forefront.
And it wasn’t just the recent stuff that could rise to the surface. One of the first experiences I had with this kind of communion came in Gagetown several years before I was loaded onto work up training for Kandahar.
I’d been drinking at the JR’s Mess, making my weekly phone calls home, and I was basically done for the night. I was at the bar chatting with the bartender before leaving, when I dropped a line I’d heard earlier that day from watching the movie ‘Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.’ It’s a line that refers to ‘a bad day in Bosnia’ and it got overheard by an older character a few stools down at the bar.
Bosnia. That mission had been over for maybe five years at that point, and this guy’s tour took place maybe fifteen years back. But suddenly this guy’s head snaps around and he’s like “I was there!” and then he was talking. About Bosnia, about Sarajevo Airport, and about a mortar attack that killed a bunch of children right at the gate to the airport that he had witnessed. As he talked, he started getting agitated, and actually started shaking a bit. He also started ordering shots from the bar, offering some to me as he talked.
Until this point I had never had to deal with PTSD face to face. I was lucky that I’d read enough about it that I could avoid saying anything stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a counsellor or anything, but when you’re an amateur dealing with someone else’s trauma, not saying something stupid is crucial. A lot of times it’s the only useful thing you’ll be able to do.
If he told me his name I don’t remember it. I was comfortably drunk when the conversation started and by the time it was done I was seriously wrecked and wondering how the fuck I was going to get through work tomorrow in the state I was in. I got no idea if this guy found anything cathartic in opening up to a stranger at the JR’s. I hope he did.
In ‘The Break,’ alcohol is flowing pretty freely throughout much of the family to varying degrees, and as we get to know these women, we get to see the interplay between their own personal collections of pain, and the booze that they drink. In the excerpt quoted at the start of this post, Cheryl is at the hospital to be with her daughters and her granddaughter, and she is filled with self-recrimination for her hungover state. Nothing is her fault. She’s been a good mother and grandmother, and there is literally nothing she could have done if she hadn’t gone out drinking the night before. But she’s angry at her self all the same.
It’s a familiar state of mind that I’ve experienced myself more than I’d like to admit, but the night before, Cheryl’s mindset is also familiar.
“…Then Rita [a friend of Lou and Cheryl] says, “Full moon tonight.”
“Really?” Cheryl looks out the window but can only see the thick pinkish cloud and snow all around.
“Time to drum,” Rita says to a place very far away. “You’re supposed to celebrate a moon. They’re powerful.”
“All right then, let’s get this party started!” Cheryl jokes and tosses her smoke out the window.
They both laugh, probably too hard, and get their coats to walk off to the bar. Arms interlinked they slip in the snow and laugh with mouths open and too loud because no one cares what old ladies do.
Cheryl loves these kinds of moments. The loud ones before it all gets started. The good ones never do last long enough.”
Amen sister. Fuck yeah. I hope I’m that righteous when I’m in my fifties.
Then there’s a scene from the next morning where Lou has just woken up hung over. Out of the younger generation of mothers she may have drunk the most that night, but she’s nevertheless kept her priorities straight: She’s a social worker and a hardened professional, and even on the night when she goes out to cut loose, she made sure her children were safe, and she made it home in one piece.
The morning after, she wakes up hurting. Something terrible has happened to her family, but she doesn’t know it yet, and her priority right now is to deal with her hangover. And her kids. Her youngest son is asking for breakfast and she manages to get him cereal and turn on the cartoons, before drifting off on the couch while ignoring her phone.
As the tragedy unfolds, Lou’s one of the last people to arrive at the hospital and when the police arrive she’s marked right away as being a drunk Indian woman. The fact that her social worker training is kicking in and she’s stepping up on behalf of her sisters and her family in the face of the police marks her as a belligerent drunk as well. And yet, what the fuck? Who are we to deny a good woman a drink the night her man walked out the door? And if she’s doing the right thing now, with her hair a mess and the last night still pounding in her head, who the fuck are we to judge her?
“When Paul hangs up the phone, she doesn’t think, just starts moving. That’s what Paul does when something happens, she just goes. That’s what they all do whenever Kookom is really sick, or whenever something happens with the kids. They just go, figure out what needs doing and do it, don’t think too much, don’t feel anything, and don’t freak out, just go. Take care of your family. Go.”
Her first real thought is that she is thankful that she works at the hospital because she’s already there.
One of the reasons I try to read stuff by people from different backgrounds is to expose myself to new perspectives. What’s most rewarding is when you read something by someone you shouldn’t have anything in common with, and you realize you know these people.
***There’s more to this idea of trauma culture that I want to revisit later. I’m not sure if I’m going to reach some kind of grand revelation here, but there’s a trail that I want to follow.***
***Featured image from houseofanansi.com***
 Now that the War’s over, a lot of stuff has receded, and you often have to look before you see it. For Reserve units overseas casualties often hit like individual losses rather than attacks on the whole, since it’s uncommon for units with multiple people on deployment to have them all serving in the same place at the same time. As for collective losses in the Militia, the high turnover rate of troops means you often have a harder time finding out about the training accident, the loss due to cancer, the suicide.
 Just as a note to the potential reader of this novel, the extended family thing can be a bit overwhelming initially, despite a family tree printed at the front of the book. Especially if you’re like me and you don’t instinctively track extended families very easily. Don’t let this put you off the novel though. It’s still very good, and as each character is further fleshed out their connections come more and more into focus.
 It takes a while to kick in, but a single question mark on the family tree eventually comes to speak volumes.
 This was before I had a cell phone so I used the pay phone in a booth at the JR’s Mess unsettlingly referred to as ‘the orgy room.’
 I don’t have children of my own, but I’ve had that awkward moment of waking up after much less respectable nights and realizing ‘Hmmm…There’s a small child here…who’s house did I crash in last night? Oh yeah, it was [name]. So this must be his daughter…uh oh…did I just blurt out the f-word in front of her as I woke up? What’s the minimum action I need to take in order to remain a responsible adult in this situation?’ Lou is a lot more put together than I’ve been in the exact same situation.
3 thoughts on “Additional Reading: ‘The Break’ by Katherina Vermette”