Jussi Adler-Olsen. The Alphabet House. 2007. (large print) USA: Thorndike Press, 2014.
Peculiar, bewildering, and not for everyone. This is so far from Adler-Olsen's popular series featuring Copenhagen cop Carl Mørck, I find myself repetitively asking Why? Why is a Danish author writing of two Englishmen who spent WWII in Germany in the most horrific circumstances? Bryan and James are young Brit pilots shot down while on photo reconnaissance, ultimately incarcerated in a German mental hospital. By chance they are able to assume valid German identities. Several of their fellow inmates are also simulating madness. The graphic details of their behaviour, treatment, and torture ‒ so gruesome, they must be real ‒ made me begin skimming large passages hoping it would change or else abandon the novel. Mimicking becomes madness. No doubt about it, background research must have consumed countless time. Prolonged story short: Bryan escaped.
To my surprise, it did change. To Bryan's life over twenty-five years later. He's feeling guilt over the unknown fate of his buddy. Off he goes to Germany to find James' story ― James who is alive and known as Gerhart. The three other former malingerers are keeping him, sedated and nearly mindless, without knowing who he really is. With the narrative POV changing from one character to another, the story is full of murky feelings and mental struggles. Can anyone adequately describe what a seriously mentally disturbed man thinks or feels? Even with tense sequences of stalking and murder, the motives and feelings of Bryan and James become more and more confusing by the page. The plot has some holes but they are overshadowed by the persisting pain. Why on earth did the author tackle such a plot? I've no answer to that; read at your own peril.
All his mental states were churned up like mud, leaving him in a chronic state of anxiety and melancholy. (143)
His blubbering and whining were to no avail as the staff pulled him out of the bed. (159)
For the sake of finally avenging all these atrocities, he could easily wait a bit longer. (490)
In their eyes he now belonged to a part of the past best left unspoken. (572)
Petra had finally lost her hold on Gerhart's and her own life. (600)
The old man's face had turned completely colorless with fury and he was frothing at the mouth. (612)
Bryan was afraid of how such a treatment might affect him. Pictures he had been clinging to in his head slowly disappeared. The idea of seeing his girlfriend again, of being able to talk to James, or of simply going for a walk unescorted in the gray drizzle outside ― everything was blunted and reduced. His memory played tricks on him, so that one day he could recall a forgotten childhood experience in a Dover side street and the next day he couldn't even remember what he looked like.
Escape plans fizzled out even before they were thought through. (120)
Encountering Petra the nurse:
"I'm sorry!" he said. She was startled to hear his English. For a couple of seconds he stopped breathing and his pulse almost disappeared. The blood drained from his face, leaving his skin pallid. He swallowed a number of times in order to stave off a sudden feeling of nausea.
She was different, but her troubled face was painfully unchanged. It was precisely the small, fine characteristics and movements that never changed. The hard life that had apparently worn her out and turned her into an ordinary middle-aged woman had not been able to remove these, in spite of everything.
What an incredible coincidence. Cold shivers ran down his spine. The past became all too present as a totality of repressed impressions was reconstructed with unbelievable precision. Suddenly he could even remember her voice. (456)
By now it was many hours since Gerhart had last had his pills. So much time had never elapsed before. A couple of minutes previously, while he was down on all fours, being pistol-whipped on the kitchen floor and staring at the small white things scattered under the kitchen table, the main sensation he'd felt was one of astonishment.
It was as if the room had grown longer than usual, and he had to keep on swallowing the saliva that had begun flowing unhindered. The sensation of his body growing and shrinking made him giddy. Andrea's steps sounded like the tramping of an ox. All the words came to him as if through a megaphone.
As the old man began to count, Gerhart felt defiance finally taking hold of him. The man's face was in his way. It brought shadow into the room and coaxed disgust up to the surface. He smelled sourish and the stubble around his beard gave him a slovenly appearance. (611-2)
Karin Slaughter. Faithless. Large print. USA: Random House, 2005.
In the series featuring Dr Sara Linton and police chief Jeffery Tolliver, this book is midway: as they contemplate re-marrying. Small town residents and rural Georgia are horrified by the discovery of a missing teenage girl buried in a wooden box in the woods. Abigail did not suffocate, she died from a forced ingestion of cyanide. Her extended family, operators of a successful organic farm with many transient labourers, is clean-living and pious. Naturally, secrets and surprises await. Sara has her own suspicions about the redheaded family leader.
Detective Lena Adams unexpectedly feels a bond with an abused wife who's on the periphery of the murder case. Apart from her job, Lena is a basket case of repressed, inarticulate emotions about her boyfriend Ethan and his negative influence on her. A harrowing climax saves the life of another young girl even though Lena faces a stand-off. Sara finally stops nagging Jeffery (thank you). Slaughter doesn't miss a beat, always on form. But sad to say she's an "off of" writer.
The baby on her hip was at least two, with a set of lungs on him that rattled the windows. (93)
He had a Bible in his other hand, and he raised it into the air like a torch, shining the way to enlightenment. (136)
"Just because you're sitting in the henhouse, that don't make you a chicken." (382)
This was the only time in his life that his father's miserable habits had actually benefited Jeffery instead of kicking him in the ass. (472-3)
The cop in her knew she should arrest him. The woman in her knew he was bad. The realist knew that one day he would kill her. Some unnamed place deep inside of Lena resisted these thoughts, and she found herself being the worst kind of coward. She was the woman throwing rocks at the police cruiser. She was the neighbor with the knife. She was the idiot kid clinging to her abuser. She was the one with tears deep inside her throat, choking on what he made her swallow. (45-6)
Same old, same old?
"Of course I know what it means," he insisted, his body feeling slack all of a sudden, like he couldn't take one more thing. How many times had they done this? How many arguments had they had in this same kitchen, both of them pushed to the edge? Jeffery was always the one who brought them back, always the one to apologize, to make things better. He had been doing this all his life, from smoothing down his mother's drunken tempers to stepping in front of his father's fists. As a cop, he put himself in people's business every day, absorbing their pain and their rage, their apprehension and fear. He couldn't keep doing it. There had to be a time in his life when he got some peace. (256-7)
"I don't recall blaming anybody."
She shook her head as she turned around. "I know what you're thinking, Chief Tolliver."
"Paul said you'd be this way. Outsiders never understand. We've come to accept that. I don't know why I tried." She pressed her lips together, her resolve strengthened by anger. "You may not agree with my beliefs, but I am a mother. One of my daughters is dead and the other is missing. I know something is wrong. I know that Rebecca would never be so selfish as to leave me at a time like this unless she felt she had to."
Jeffery thought she was answering his earlier question without admitting it to herself. He tried to be even more careful this time. "Why would she have to?" (327)
Tanya Talaga. Seven Fallen Feathers. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2017.
Non-fiction. This is Ontario's True North. This is how our Native population exists at home and away from home. For high school and higher education, most northwestern Native families in our province have to send their children away to board, often with strangers, in a highly unfamiliar urban environment. The teenagers come from very small, tightly-bound communities (despite their lack of decent facilities) where one hundred years of cruel residential schooling have made profound scars on their parents and earlier generations. Lonely, homesick kids trying to adjust to "bright lights, big city" ‒ experiencing local insults, racial slurs, threats, assaults ‒ feeling like aliens, meeting each other for booze or drugs as consolation.
Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFC) in Thunder Bay opened in 2000 to address their educational needs. But the support system is not wide enough, not deep enough, to guarantee safety of the students. Some DFC students have died in "undetermined" circumstances. The bodies of seven Native youths (at the time of publication) have been pulled from the Neebing-McIntyre floodway. Beyond the young losses, adult Natives have met suspicious deaths. Police and government authorities from municipal to federal are accused of indifference and neglect.
Despite the call from Nishnawbi Aski Nation and significant other groups, the pleas, reviews, reports, commissions, recommendations, etc have pretty much come to naught. Lack of funding to address the situation is appalling. The lack of justice and equality is worse. The entire Indian Act (1870) as an unconscionable, racist failure has to go. There is no justification for our fellow human beings having to live in the most primitive of conditions.
There was a time when I was proud to say, "I'm from Thunder Bay." It's more than seven fallen feathers. It's more than just Thunder Bay. Generations of us white folks have just accepted that's the way it is ― if we were even conscious of it. I wonder what my old school friends think of this, the ones from Kenora, Redditt, Sioux Lookout, Fort Frances, Rainy River, Red Lake, Ear Falls. While we enjoyed the comforts of an elite boarding school, we had not the slightest awareness of other youngsters existing miserably, bullied, stripped of basic respect and dignity in residential schools, not so far away from us.
What have we done and when will we undo it?! The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2016 ordered the Canadian government in one regard to make it right ―to make it legally and financially possible for Native children to be treated the same as any other Canadian child. Jurisdictional wrangling continues; reviews of the police continue.
Talaga factually exposes the racism, the ignorance, the heartbreak, the bureaucratic inefficiencies, how residential school trauma haunts any teenager who must go away for further education. Every Canadian should read this book.
Trudeau is sympathetic, but Fiddler knows that he will never truly grasp the enormity of the issues his people live through every single day. (51)
Some days the pain was unbearable and his head would pound with the weight of remembrance. (53)
For many Indigenous families, keeping young First Nations students safe from harm means keeping them out of Thunder Bay. (267-8)
[From the DFC guidebook for students] "Look confident, walk with your head up as if you know where you are going. The appearance of being lost or being anxious may render you vulnerable to unwanted attention."
Part of the residential school legacy:
What the statistics don't tell you is how some of the older children would form their own abusive circles, preying on the younger, more vulnerable kids. The abuse suffered at the hands of adult supervisors took its toll on the students. They became further disengaged from the classroom, angry, and in need of someone to take their rage out on. For some of the kids, the younger children were easy victims.
This is the life Chanie ran from. (80)
Re Chanie Wenjack's inquest:
She knew there were only four recommendations but they were something.
The most important one for her was the establishment of proper schools on every single reserve. This way kids would never have to leave their community.
"When I heard about the kids in Thunder Bay, I could feel them running, of being scared," Pearl says.
She understood their anguish. Their deep loneliness for home. Their confusion living in a big city so unlike where they were from and communicating in a language not their own.
"When I am alone at home, I think about my brother. The drive to go home was so strong. I don't want his death to be in vain," she says. "As a residential school survivor, you can feel it all over again, what these students felt. Yes, you can feel it." (89-90)
PM Harper's residential school apology 2008:
As Alvin listened quietly to Harper's speech, he thought about the children of the Nishnawbi Aski Nation and the situation they were in right now. Most of them didn't have any clean water to drink or to bathe in. Many lived in houses without plumbing or proper heating. Fires were constantly claiming the lives of NAN kids because they lived in poorly constructed tinderbox houses that used homemade wood stoves to heat the rooms. Alvin thought about the abject poverty most of his people lived in and the addictions they suffered in the hopes of making all their misery go away. (240)
And yet still the inequities rage. Northern First Nations families are faced with the horrific choice of either sending their children to high school in a community that cannot guarantee their safety, or keeping them at home and hoping distance education will be enough. Families are still being told ‒ more than twenty years after the last residential school was shut down ‒ that they must surrender their children for them to gain an education. Handing over the reins to Indigenous education authorities such as the NNEC without giving them the proper funding tools is another form of colonial control and racism. (267)
NAN lawyer, 2016 inquest:
The truth is none of the kids were safe by the river but it wasn't because they were drinking, Falconer argued. They weren't safe because Canadian society set them up for failure as human beings. "We didn't have space for them in our world and we didn't make space for them in theirs," he said. Without schools they couldn't be educated in their world, so they had to leave to come here, said Falconer. "They died of flat neglect." (282)