Jackfish, The Vanishing Village

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    Book Synopsis

    Sarah Felix Burns is a gifted writer, who proves in her first novel, Jackfish the Vanishing Village, that she can create a fictional world that comes to life. Jackfish may have disappeared from the map, but Burns makes it unforgettable. The narrator of this imaginary memoir, Clemance, is a unique individual as well as a representative of the many women who carry the physical and psychological scars of abuse, and the feelings of self-blame that accompany them. Her life story includes episodes of agonizing pain, but also moments of peace and forgiveness, avoiding both gratuitous scenes of violence and maudlin sentimentality. The author’s own experience of social work and Women’s Studies, as well as of Canada-US relations, assures a sense of authenticity and perceptive analysis of her character’s situation. The subtle style, effective images, and ambitious structure of the narration draw us into Clemance’s world and make us care about her and those around her – the survivors and those who lose their way. I was sorry when the story ended, and look forward to reading future works of fiction by Sarah Felix Burns. This book is thought-provoking and moving feminist fiction.

    – Valerie Raoul, Director of the SAGA Centre for Studies in Autobiography, Gender, and Age at UBC

    Inanna Publications and Education Inc. is proud to announce the release of a new work of fiction: Jackfish, The Vanishing Village, a novel by Sarah Felix Burns, published under their imprint, Inanna Poetry and Fiction Series. Jackfish, The Vanishing Village tells the story of a woman unravelling from a traumatic past and her yearning for redemption. When her sister dies prematurely, Clemance-Marie Nadeau leaves her family and village behind, boarding a train bound for Sault Ste. Marie, where she falls under the spell of a charming stranger who promises her a life of adventure, and then holds her captive with her guilt and his threats of violence. Years later, when Clemance moves to the United States, she feels like an outsider, but Clemance is also in exile from herself. Discovering she is pregnant at the age of forty-two sets in motion a series of events that awakens a painful memory, long-buried in her embattled body, and so begins the long and sometimes harrowing journey back to her homeland, and to herself. Sarah Felix Burns grew up in a small village in northern Ontario near Sault Ste.Marie. She has a degree in Women’s Studies and History from the University of British Columbia and a Masters in Social Work from the University of Toronto. A social worker, she has worked for several years in the areas of trauma, addictions, domestic violence, and child protection.

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    Book Review

    I was nervous before reading this book by Sarah Felix Burns, dreading a book about abuse, domestic violence and control. But I was glad to be introduced to Clemance (Clay-monse), years after her abuse. I felt her hurt, saw her stumbles, and desired her to find peace. The domestic violence hits the pages as historical recall during counselling sessions, about one third through the book. It was hard to read and terrifying. But it wasn’t long, about 10 pages, interspersed with her current non-violent life.

    The book has loads of discussion points: violence against women, Christianity, feminism, aboriginal spirituality, family dynamics, alcohol, drugs, inter-racial marriage, racial discrimination, poverty, bad childhood, and childhood guilt. This list is inconclusive. If I listed everything I may give the story away!

    Clemance’s pregnancy acted as a catalyst to recall events in three ways. Real life struggles during her pregnancy triggered memories, stimulating more memories. The second method, quite acceptable for a pregnant state, was the powerful and vivid dreams. The third method, Clemance’s counselling sessions, was a good way to relate the abuse. The counsellor’s reaction helps the reader and sanctions that the horror should rest with the counsellor rather than in us. The counsellor helps the reader to distance. Thankfully, this book is not about a woman living day-by-day through domestic violence, stretched into two hundred pages. Instead it is a book about before and after her abuse. Although the book does not dwell on the actual abuse, Clemance lives with the after effects, which threaten her mental health. Some parts of her abuse she had never revealed, kept locked inside herself for an amazing long time.

    This story leaps from the character’s current life of managing life as a pregnant woman on her own, and to her all-consuming past. The author handled the numerous time shifts extremely well, seemingly effortless in the movement. At no time, did I have to ask myself, “where am I in the story? The past or the present?”

    Those of us who have never experienced physical violence in a domestic situation cannot comprehend the victim’s willingness to stay. How can we answer this unanswerable question: Why does she stay in the abusive relationship? Jackfish, The Vanishing Village attempts to answer this question by telling us Clemance’s story.

    Many women would not willingly put themselves into a situation of domestic violence in order to understand. Through Clemance’s recounting, we can understand why Clemance “signed up” for domestic violence, and why her contract lasted so long with her abuser until she terminated the contract. From Clemance’s story, we gleam a theory to why a woman stays with an abuser.

    For each woman, it varies to a degree of individuality. Each human being cherishes hopes and dreams for happiness, a desire for love, and a willingness to see the good side in people. Often these women have a lack of confidence. The question is where does this lack of self-confidence start? With Clemance, Burns sources it back to her childhood. Clemance’s first sin was her role in her sister’s missing fingers.

    “Guilt, old guilt from early childhood, has a way of festering and compounding over time. When you grow up with the rawness of guilt devouring you from inside you have few defences against the outside world. To fill the void left from the rampaging badness, you take on the retribution, the punishment, and feel that it is rightly deserved.” Life events and the sins of other people can catapult a child into the cesspool of guilt. Counselling children after a tragic event whether experienced individually or collectively is of the utmost importance. By helping a child to work through “it”, and understand what her role was in the tragedy, the guilt can be demolished and replaced with understanding, which evolves into self-confidence. Without an adult to help a child like Clemance to work through the tragedy, Clemance’s guilt created low self-confidence, making her susceptible to domestic violence. Poor self-image is one reason why a woman stays in an abusive relationship.

    Friends bolster confidence, sometimes providing confidence for a person. Our social relationships or our social networks are our reality checks and our confidence boosters. The abuser skillfully manipulates the destruction of the woman’s social network. He destroys it bit by bit in an innocuous manner using emotional isolation, and often different degrees of physical isolation and increasing physical violence. Then he replaces her varied relationships in her social network with himself, one source. Once a woman’s social network is gone, the woman is so much more susceptible to staying in the abusive relationship. Her reality checks are gone, blocked by the abuser who promotes his own reality check. The abuser also blocks any alternatives and options advocated by friends and family by isolating her from her friends and family. This is a second reason why a woman stays in an abusive relationship.

    Then, there are patterns in everyone’s life. Sometimes, we don’t see a pattern in our own lives for a long time, for whatever reason. Suddenly, all the trials that we have suffered through make sense. A pattern is revealed, making us wonder why we couldn’t see this pattern before. Finally, we understand why we had to go through the bad times in order to get to the good times. Unfortunately for an abused woman, an abuser allows no time or room for introspection and analysis of the past and present. Instead he keeps the abused woman focused on his needs in the present, and her immediate self-preservation. This is the third reason why a woman stays in an abusive relationship.

    Clemance called her time with abuser as her “captivity”. This leads to an interesting question. Do we take the worst from the domestic violent situation, the techniques used by the abuser, and turn it around to reform prisoners? For people who are in solitary confinement in jails, should we move towards rehabilitation by constantly transmitting “good values” through sound and video, showing alternatives, options, and possibilities for a better life? Should we have motivational speakers piped in over television sets, a type of brainwashing? Should satellite training courses on development and improvement of oral and written skills be piped in? Should we send in preachers and missionaries to speak of the Christian values? Who should choose the good values? And how would we teach these values? These questions would fire up any bookclub discussion!

    Clemance moved around quite a bit in her life, within Canada and also within the United States. An important question for Clemance when meeting new people is to discover where they are from. “I believe that where a person is from is a big part of who they are.” As Clemance says, we get a deeper understanding of the person because that place has shaped their past and their identity. We know the truth in this when we assign values to a person raised in Canada or raised in the US.

    When we understand where we are from, that knowledge should help to heal and move forward. Not so with Clemance, she knows her past but doesn’t know how to use it to heal. I would have liked some inner analysis and comparison between her parent’s relationship and her own abusive relationship. It is there for the reader. But Clemance never consciously connects the dots. Even her first romantic relationship was with a man who was strange, threatening and intimidating at times. Her alcoholic father was strange, threatening and intimidating. In turn, she drank and took drugs after escaping her abuser. She exchanged one abuse for another. Maybe Clemance did compare, but Burns bypasses the analysis, making the reader wonder if Clemance ever saw the parallelism.

    Is this character’s lack of analysis of her past familial and romantic relationships a weakness in the book? Or is it a deliberate attempt by Burns to show that some people are not long-term thinkers, and deep analyzers, and cannot connect the dots as they move through life. Is Burns saying short-term thinking is a weakness in all women who are victims of domestic violence? And that is why intervention and counselling are so important?

    My criticism of the book surrounds the handling of lithium. Clemance stops taking lithium once she discovers she is pregnant. During her pregnancy, she revealed all of her hidden past to a counsellor. Subsequently, after breastfeeding is completed, Clemance seemingly no longer needs lithium. How can we interpret this? Most obviously, Burns may be implying that most users of lithium are not properly treated. That when confession comes from the soul, and true rehabilitation results, that lithium is a bandage to be ripped off. Is this realistic? Are there only two kinds of depression, one with chemical alterations in the brain, which requires some drug, and the other from life experiences, which requires true confession and counselling?

    Even though Clemance hasn’t practised her catholic religion since childhood, Catholicism is still very much a part of her life. Clemance seeks redemption. I would say that Clemance is seeking forgiveness or healing. Those three words have very different connotations: redemption, forgiveness and healing. Her focus on redemption proves that where a person is from influences identity, the present, and the future. But not just origin influences, past experiences can mark for life as Clemance’ captivity marked her. It can be an hour like the Twin Towers, or it can be years as in the internment camps for Japanese Canadians during World War II.

    One of my favourite parts involves a kidless person giving advice. Clemance’s sister who never had kids considers herself an expert on children. Part of her assumed expertise comes from being a teacher. She phones Clemance and gives a speech on what a mixed race child will face in the future. Clemance’s rebuttal is priceless. The effortless way Clemance voices her thoughts reveals the depth of her analysis of racial discrimination. To release the gnawing doubts that take hold after the conversation, Clemance remembers a situation that contrasts and quells the doubts instilled by her sister. This process teaches the reader how to deal with those doubts.

    Burns places high value on worldly experiences. When Clemance moves to Vancouver after her abuse, she discovers a whole new world. “With empowerment and knowledge came the realization that there were different classes of people. It became clear to me where I fit in.” Then during the latter stages of her pregnancy while off work, Clemance receives a traditional Christmas newsletter from a social services ex-coworker. The coworker expresses religious happiness with her small town life. “I wonder if she will look back one day when she is eighty years old (for surely she will live that long), and regret that she never left this small American town. She was born here, raised here, and will die here with all her people.” Perhaps that is what is wrong with religion, religious values segregate and make people fearful of differences, just like Clemance’s sister. When a person experiences different cultures, towns, or cities, far away from one’s origins, come understanding, empathy and acceptance to the breadth and diversity of human existence.

    Not all of us can travel extensively. With books, we can travel anywhere and experience many different lives. Just as we should travel outside of our home zone, so we should reach out to books that are outside of our comfort zone. The summary of Jackfish, The Vanishing Village was very much outside of my comfort zone. In reading this book, I travelled in a world that I have never experienced. Some of it was difficult but not prolonged as I had anticipated. In the end, I gained understanding, empathy and acceptance of women who had experienced domestic violence, widening my travels in the breadth and diversity of human existence.

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