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The Break by Katherena Vermette
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The Break (2016)

by Katherena Vermette

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Four generations of Indigenous women are living trauma-filled lives where sorrow and pain are just below the surface. The violent attack of a teenager is the catalyst for them to confront the source of this pain. Some of the women have tried to harden themselves against the pain or escape from it, but, ultimately their healing comes from speaking up, not closing up. In the end we are left with hope for these women’s healing journeys.

“She was silent for as long as he could be. She thought she could heal there, but she was only resting, she was only standing still waiting for the real work to being. Waiting until she found the words.” (Stella pg. 273) ( )
  Lindsay_W | Aug 24, 2018 |
THE BREAK is a literary whodunit set in the north end of Winnipeg. Vermette uses ten first person narratives, most of which are from related Metis women, to explore broader themes than the rape of a 13 year-old girl on a cold and snowy night on an isolated piece of land known as “the break.” She uses this “Greek Chorus” approach to explore the importance for native people of maintaining connections with family, culture, history, and the land when coping with the challenges of urban life. She asks what happens when these connections are strained to and beyond the breaking point. Thus, her title carries two meanings: the site of the crime and the break with their heritage that native people experience living in modern urban environments.

Stella observes the crime, only later to learn that the victim was her niece, Emily. Stella’s backstory involves a childhood being cared for by her grandmother, Kookom, following the addiction and murder of her mother, Lorraine. Stella’s white husband, suspicious of where Kookom lives, has isolated her from her family. Kookom’s other daughter, Cheryl, is a functioning alcoholic who works at an art gallery. She has two daughters of her own, Lou and Paulina, but still has lingering regrets arising from the murder of her sister. Paulina, the single mother of the rape victim, is struggling with her new male partner. Lou is a social worker and, like her sister, is has a dysfunctional relationship with her male partner. Each of these women exhibits considerable strength in coping with the "big and small half-stories that make up a life," including substance abuse, domestic violence and separation from family.

Vermette depicts the community’s more severe issues of drugs, crime, and violence with Phoenix. She is an addicted homeless teenager, recently released from juvenile detention, who seeks to reconnect with her gang leader uncle. Phoenix is indeed not a likeable character. However, she is counterbalanced somewhat by Zegwan, Emily’s best friend and self-proclaimed geek. She seeks to convince Emily that her childish crush might be dangerous.

The police investigating the rape evince the racism and classism that are prevalent in Winnipeg law enforcement. Despite being Metis himself, Officer Tommy Scott works the case while struggling with his own identity. "In his head, he thinks, all those women blend into one…same long dark hair, straight and shiny, same almond eyes, almost.” His partner, Officer Christie, is an overt racist. He represents the prevailing opinions of the police when it comes to serving and protecting native people. He displays an utter lack of interest in solving the crime, referring to the women as “a dime a dozen.”

Vermette demonstrates remarkable control in using a single crime as well as shifting perspectives and timelines to give the reader a compelling narrative on the broad issues facing native people living in urban environments like Winnipeg. She refrains from preaching; instead, lets the facts speak for themselves. The novel has a couple of minor flaws, however, but neither detracts significantly from its impact. With the exception of Tommy Scott, Vermette provides no nuanced male characters. Instead they all seem to blend into one absent macho stereotype. Also, her parsimonious narrative can leave the reader with the need for a more information. ( )
  ozzer | Aug 21, 2018 |
When 13-year-old Emily is brutally attacked on her way home from a gang party, the woman in her life gather around for support and to solve the mystery of who attacked her. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the female characters or the young Metis police officer assigned to the case. A perfect read to understand the struggles faced by Indigenous women. Highly recommended. ( )
  SheilaCornelisse | Jul 22, 2018 |
The Break is Katherena Vermette’s debut novel. This book was a 2016 Governor General’s Literary Prize Finalist, and won or was a finalist for a multitude of other awards. I was keen to read what this MFA graduate from UBC’s creative writing program had produced and I wasn’t disappointed.

As the book blurb indicates, Vermette’s novel takes the reader into the lives and hearts of group of family and friends. Through a shifting narrative, the reader soon realizes that the characters and their actions are woven in an intricate tapestry. As two young family members are brutally attacked, the history of this group of family and friends and their complex lives begins to unravel. When the multiple truths are finally revealed, the reader is left feeling raw and oddly at peace.

There are many strengths in Vermette’s novel. Her clear and true voice, her depictions of the heartbreaks and tragedies that shadow her characters’ lives, and the ultimate strength of family bonds that tie these imperfect people to each other, their heritage and their land. Katherena Vermette’s gift of story telling is profound. Her characters are all imperfect and real. As she takes the reader through each of their lives, one can’t help developing sympathy, understanding, and fondness for them. In addition, the unfairness and struggle the women (and men, too) in her novel face is difficult to read. The female characters are imperfect, strong, and beautiful. It doesn’t take long for the reader to develop a kinship with them.

While it is difficult to find a weakness in this magnificent novel, I have talked to some people who found it difficult to keep up with the leaps between characters. At first this was a challenge for me as well. At one point early on in my reading I became confused as to which character was which. But the large cast of characters is absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the ultimate message in Vermette’s work. And as one continues reading, the confusion evaporates as each character develops into a complete person, distinguishable and important to the overall story.

This is not an easy book to read and that is what makes it so powerful. The truth and honesty in Vermette’s words is soul shattering. I highly recommend you add this to your reading list. ( )
  cathishaw | Jul 2, 2018 |
I believe this was the most well written book I've ever read. Usually I have one criticism or another but I can't think of a single thing. Also I loved the trigger warning at the start of the book - it helped me to prepare and therefore cope with the traumatic events that take place in this book. ( )
  munchie13 | Jun 27, 2018 |
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I’m basically giving you her resume because The Break doesn’t read like an impressive first novel; it reads like a masterstroke from someone who knows what they’re doing....Vermette is skilled at writing with a language that is conversational and comfortable and with a poetic ease that makes the hard things easier to swallow. The result is a book that is at times emotionally demanding, funny, suspenseful, and always engaging.
 
The language the characters use is realistic, though harsh and violent. This is especially true of some of the younger characters, who cannot seem to speak a single sentence that does not contain the word “fuck.”..While the violent characters in the novel are despicable, it is a testament to Vermette’s skill that they also appear pitiable. The Break is a condemnation of reprehensible individual behaviour, but also of a broader society incapable of dealing effectively with problems of addiction, poverty, homelessness, and despair...In unfolding her multigenerational narrative, Vermette ties together several disparate plot strands en route to a realistic conclusion. However, the way Vermette resolves some of her plot points is a bit too pat... However, fiction is capable of helping us to comprehend difference and otherness, and The Break offers clear insight into people struggling to secure a place in the world.



 
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Epigraph
Betty, if I start to write a poem about you it might turn out to be about hunting season instead, about an 'open season " on native women - from " Helen Betty Osborne"
by Marilyn Dumont
" The most common way people give up their power is by thinking that they don't have any." - Alice Walker
Dedication
For my mother

In honour of those who have been lost . With love to those have found a way through - you lead us.
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The Break is a piece of land just west of McPhillips Street.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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amazon ca:2016 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize finalist

When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break ― a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house ― she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.

In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim ― police, family, and friends ― tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night. Lou, a social worker, grapples with the departure of her live-in boyfriend. Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister Rain. Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new partner. Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention centre. Officer Scott, a Métis policeman, feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city. Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed.

A powerful intergenerational family saga, The Break showcases Vermette’s abundant writing talent and positions her as an exciting new voice in Canadian literature.
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When Stella, a young Mtis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break--a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house--she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.

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