Monique Gray Smith's Tilly is a novel "loosely based on my life," she explains in her introduction. Gray Smith is one of a rich legacy of women writers who have blended autobiography and fiction.
Recently, at a reading, I heard an author say when she first started writing, she didn't know how to get a character through the door and across the room. That came to mind as I read Gray Smith's book. She appears to move her character, Tilly, not only across the room but seamlessly through several decades of life.
The story begins in Kelowna, British Columbia in 1974, when Tilly is a child. She was named for her Grandma Tilly who is part Lakota. Tilly's mother is Cree and doesn't know her family, as she was taken away from them when she was a baby.
Following a racist incident during which Tilly's Mom is called a "squaw" and told to get back to the reserve "where you belong," Tilly's Auntie Pauline offers some teaching and says she will help Tilly find out more about being Cree. This initial incident is an example of the experiences, learning, and resilience Tilly demonstrates throughout the decades she describes.
Grandma Tilly is another fine teacher whose school "was the land, the rivers, the stars, our ceremonies, and my grandma and grandpa." She teaches young Tilly how to fish and to make an offering with sage, a form of gratitude.
While telling one woman's story of "hope and resilience," Gray Smith includes the history of Canada's First Nations, including: residential schools (boarding schools that intended to assimilate Native children); hospitals that were racially segregated and treated only Aboriginal people, mostly for tuberculosis; and what is referred to as the Sixties Scoop, when children were taken from their families and, for the most part, placed in non-Aboriginal homes.
When Tilly started grade seven, Grandma Tilly died. The woman who had been Tilly's anchor was gone and it was in the spring of the year she was in grade seven that her "real attachment to alcohol began."
In the years to follow, Tilly says, "my drinking would lead to humiliating situations, soul-shattering loneliness, one-night stands and suicidal fantasies."The family moved frequently, and when she was fifteen, her Dad left for good.
Tilly is grateful for teachers and mentors as she recounts her story. One of them, a teacher called Mrs. Murphy, sees potential in Tilly and tells her: "You have the ability to make the world a better place. But somehow you need to find a way to see all that good in yourself." Tilly later realizes she had been treated with dignity.
Following graduation from nursing school, Tilly moves to Kamloops, British Columbia where she learns about the services offered by the local Friendship Center. There she meets a counselor called Bea, who becomes a steadfast presence in her life.
One of Bea's assignments is that Tilly go to Alcoholics Anonymous. As Tilly says as she learns about her First Nations heritage, Bea helped her "to live the life my Ancestors had dreamed for me."
This is a gently unfolding story in which the protagonist, Tilly, is held by the spirit of her ancestors. Her resilience comes from a natural strength as well as from guides and teachers along the way.
The author includes a glossary in the back of the book as well as questions for discussion and a diagram of The Umbrella of First Nations Resiliency she created.
As word gets out about Tilly, I know the author will continue to receive many gifts as she connects to others, and as her readers are inspired to honor their own stories of resilience.
Monique Gray Smith is a mixed-heritage woman of Cree, Lakota, and Scottish ancestry and a proud mom of young twins. Under the umbrella of her own business, Little Drum Consulting, Monique is an accomplished consultant, writer, and international speaker. She lives on Coast Salish territory in Victoria, B.C.
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