Blue Bear Woman by Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau

Originally published in French as Ourse Bleu in 2007, Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau’s book has the distinction of being the first novel published in Quebec by an Indigenous woman. Now, English readers have Blue Bear Woman, a translation by Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli and published by Inanna Publications.* Blue Bear Woman is a powerful little novel of a mixed blood Cree/Métis woman (Victoria is her given name) searching for the memories of her past growing up in the James Bay area of Quebec.

This morning, we set out for James Bay. I have no idea the journey will lead me to obscure territories hidden deep in impenetrable atavistic memories.

So begins Part 1: The Journey to James Bay.

Victoria is accompanied on the journey by her husband Daniel, a non-indigenous man. They travel northward, sleeping in their rented van, camping when they can and renting a motel room when they need a shower and a real bed. Along the way, Victoria encounters family, such as many second cousins, but also more dreams that trouble her. She needs to find out what the dreams mean. She tells Daniel:

“My dreams,”I say, “My latest dreams warned me. George hasn’t left. His spirit is still roaming there, he’s begging for help! I have to find a way to appease his spirit.”

Victoria’s Great-Uncle George disappeared one particularly harsh winter when he went out alone to check his traplines and never returned. His body was never recovered, aside from a leg bone back in 1970 that exhibited teeth marks on it. Encouraged by this and by further dreams and assistance she gets along the way from documents, and an elderly shaman named Humbert Mistenapeo, Victoria is on her vision quest.

In Part II: The Journey Within, Victoria’s own long-suppressed abilities as a shaman are awakened. Time is also of the essence, for Quebec Hydro will soon flood the area by building the Eastmain dam, submerging traditional Cree hunting grounds forever.

All for the good of the white majority and Americans who will likely offer to purchase the province’s electricity surplus. Did the Cree chiefs, signatories to the Paix des Braves Agreement that allowed for the new developments, really believe they were helping their people?

Victoria has pleasant memories of her family’s past way of life, but there are also the lingering ghosts of residential schools, abuse, the damaging effects of alcohol on her parents and siblings, suicide and more.

The beginnings of a headache tell me my body needs a rest. I need alone time before my second cousin and I begin preparing the next stages of our search for Great-Uncle George’s bones. The river lures me with its long, grey sandbank. The air is humid, a sign of rain to come? I walk, I breathe, and the strangeness of this voyage north to my roots overwhelms me with a jumble of emotions I’d thought put to rest. The pain I believed to be under lock and key has been revived. My impatience and aggressive outburst over lunch were simply a sign of my unwillingness in the face of an inevitable journey. Shaman Mistenapeo’s power has delivered me to the dreaded depths.

The past, alcohol, neglect, and lost loved ones resurface, the drowned rising from a lake bed. How can I come to a spirit’s rescue when I’ve been incapable of helping the living? When I have no hold over those still with us even now sliding into the abyss? A wave of anguish provokes a howl that’s cut off by sobs wracking my body. I sit with my back against a rock, my head and arms resting on my raised knees. The coils around my solar plexus assert their stranglehold, tightening around me like some wild, enraged animal’s fangs. Waves of sorrow reach into the marrow of my bones, into my cells, my atoms. A pack of repressed images hurls itself at me.

This is not an easy trip for Victoria. Daniel, while accommodating for the most part, does not share her spiritual ways and this leads to frustration, and soon enough, tragedy.

In Daniel Heath Justice’s seminal book, Why Indigenous Literatures Matters, he states: “Stories are bigger than the texts or the bodies that carry them.” So it is with Blue Bear Woman. Ms. Bordeleau shifts back and forth between her youth (the early 1960s) and the present (2004) as she weaves a mesmerizing story of discovery, loss, family, and spiritual direction that was a pure joy to experience. The patient reader is rewarded with Victoria’s deepest thoughts as she recalls happy times, simpler times, wondrous stories recounted by her elders, and the dreams that compel her to press on. However, always present are the insidious actions of the white man (past and present) and how they have changed the Cree peoples in immeasurable ways. A 5-star read, Blue Bear Woman, is on the 2020 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Fiction.

“A dizzying dive into a heartrending past.” — Le Devoir

*This review is based on an Advance Reading Copy supplied by Inanna Publications. It is due for release on October 2019.

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