Wednesday, 19 May 2021

From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle

Catriona Troth

What We thought of It:

From the Ashes is a painful and poignant memoir from Canadian author, Jesse Thistle. Thistle is Michif, or Métis – descended from the offspring of Cree women and French and Scottish fur traders.

Owing to family breakup, Thistle grew up divorced from his heritage, knowing nothing about the history or language of his people. His father, a drug addict, took him and his two brothers away from his mother and her people and then abandoned them. The boys were brought up by their paternal grandparents who, though they loved them, gave them little understanding or affection.

Thistle ended up homeless and drug addicted, living on the streets and moving in and out of prison. That he survived at all is something of a miracle. But survive he did, and as he hit rock bottom and began to claw his way back up again, he began to ask himself why it is that so many young Indigenous men, like him, can be found in Canada’s prisons and homeless shelters.

The answer, for Thistle at least, lay in reclaiming his Métis heritage – understanding how they came to live as they did, forced to squat on narrow strips Crown lands alongside roads and railway lines, the so-called ‘road-allowances’. As he writes in the dedication:

“The pages of this book speak to the damage colonialism can do to Indigenous families, and how, when one’s Indigeneity is stripped away, people can make poor choices informed by pain, loneliness and heartbreak, choices that see them eventually case upon the streets, in jail or wandering the no place to be.”

From the Ashes is not an easy read. Thistle’s path down into his own personal hell was long and tortuous. He doesn’t spare the reader any of the horror of what the dark extremes of drug addiction do to either the body or the mind.

Some of the most arresting moments in the book come in the poems that are dotted between its chapters. Thistle distils his experiences into instants of time captured in free verse.

I had this tiny bag
It had my old life inside
When I finally got the courage to get rid of it, I left it on the bed
Then I jumped out of the window
Down two stories
But the grass broke my fall.

A troubling, necessary and ultimately inspiring book.

Jesse Thistle is now assistant professor in Métis Studies at York University, Toronto. From the Ashes was the top-selling book in Canada in 2020.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Stuart, A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters, Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, Birdie by Tracie Lindberg, The Break by Katherena Vermette

Avoid If You Dislike: Grim details of the physical and mental impacts of extreme drug addiction

Perfect Accompaniment: Bannock and Saskatoon berries

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Indigenous Writing

Buy This Book Here


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