Lynda Archer: Ally of Reconciliation

Phyllis Reeve

Book Review

Tuesday, December 6 2016

When I first met Lynda Archer she was in retreat in a cottage at the South End of Gabriola, surrounded by notes for the books she planned to write.  She returned to Ontario and her career as a clinical psychologist, but every summer she came to the island and plotted her future. Now a permanent Gabriolan, she launched her novel Tears in the Grass in April 2016 at our community library. 

Since then  Archer has been acclaimed as a non-Aboriginal writer sympathetically addressing Aboriginal characters and concerns. The novel is set in 1968,  before the word “reconciliation” acquired its present Canadian connotation.  But Chastity Davis of  the Raven Institute,  a member of Sliammon First Nation and a force in the movement to build relationships between  Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, calls Archer “an ally to the Aboriginal community and part of the Reconciliation movement.”   Davis goes on to commend the novel’s portrayal of “strong, educated, successful  and compassionate modern-day Aboriginal women” instead of  the broken  misfits too often depicted in the media, and praises Archer for  sharing stories that will “help shift the stereotypes.”  BC BookWorld cited Tears in the Grass as one of only two fiction works included in the 4-page feature “Aboriginality” marking June as Aboriginal History Month.

A particularly Canadian novel, Tears in the Grass was conceived in Ontario, set in the  prairie landscape of Saskatchewan, Archer’s birthplace, and written in British Columbia. Central to the book is a lovingly realized character, the Cree elder Elinor. After ninety years of joy and sorrow and many decades of secrecy, she determines to find the child taken from her while she herself was still a child in a Residential school.

 This story of three strong women from successive generations of a family might, as one Amazon reviewer observed, “ have been told in any milieu, but the author’s choice to set it within the world of Indigenous peoples and their ongoing struggles  provides an extra level of intrigue and complexity to the story” . The choice also links our recent past to present concerns and sometimes shocks as one realises that not quite enough has changed in the intervening  years: the attitudes and stereotypes which Davis mentioned, the bridges still to be built in both directions.

Finally and definitely not politically correct, there is Big Brown, the stuffed bison in the Museum of Natural History. His “communication” with Elinor offers a metaphorical framework for her memories. One cannot now allow a wild creature to become “mangy, extinct” in a museum as if undergoing  “a second dying.  Yet I remember the museums where we encountered mountain goats, wolves, birds, even a gorilla. The experience was sad but magical, regrettable but unforgettable, like Big Brown.  In her idea of him as in her depiction of the irrepressible Elinor, Archer compels us to smile through our tears.

Tears in the Grass by Lynda A Archer, published by Dundurn, is available at the Gabriola Library and at bookstores, including on Gabriola at Page’s Resort and Marina.