Gutter Child by Jael Richardson

Jael Richardson’s debut novel, Gutter Child (2021, HarperCollins Canada)* is a forceful one that shines a spotlight on racism, colonization and the struggle to get out from under an imposed debt that only death will bring freedom from. It is a work of creative fiction that strongly resonates in the age of Black Lives Matter and other Black activist issues.

Set in an imaginary world (an apartheid state, not unlike South Africa) where the colonizers have pushed the Indigenous tribes so far back from the coast that they eventually revolt, but lose the war. This results in a “debt” being placed on every person and unborn child that they must work off in order to cover the costs of warring against the colonizers, which are obviously white, although it is never stated as such. It is a crushing debt that is unlikely to be paid off. The “Gutter” is an area of the Mainland that the vanquished Sossi people have been relegated to. The primary way out of the Gutter is the Academy track which grooms Gutter children for virtual enslavement to Mainlanders until their debt is paid, perhaps by the time they are seniors. There are good employers as well as employers that abuse their workers. Escape back to the Gutter is practically impossible.

Elimina Dubois is the Gutter Child of the title and we find her at the beginning of the story being dropped off at Livingstone Academy as her Mainland mother has died and she must be trained in order to be made valuable to Mainland society. The reader follows Elimina and her new friends through the various strata of Academy life with its strict rules including the employer fair where graduates are on display for Mainland employers, reminiscent of the days of slavery in the U.S. and the Caribbean. There are often bidding wars over a prospective job candidate.

In the following passage, Elimina is talking with Ida, a woman from the Gutter who does hairdressing for Livingstone Academy (and the first Gutter woman that she has met):

“Do you ever get angry that your family sent you away?”

Ida shakes her head. “The only reason my parents sent me here was because we all want what those Mainlanders got from birth, that Redemption Freedom, that sense of being fully free, not an animal that can be marked or leashed or put to work for someone else. When a creature is trapped, they’ll cut off their own arm to save their body. That’s what Gutter folks do. We cut off our own body for the chance to save the family.”

I think of how Ida has a whole family depending on her, and I wonder if that makes it harder, if I should be grateful to be doing this alone.

“Should I be happy to be here, Ida?”

She stops and sighs, resting her hand on my shoulder, like this is a question she’s not sure she can answer. “You have lived a different life, baby girl, seen different things. So I can’t answer that for you. I don’t know if I have happiness . . . But I found purpose, I suppose. That’s what drives me. Perhaps you can find that too. If you ask me, purpose is far more useful than happiness. Happiness is like sugar—sweet, but quick to go. But purpose is really something, baby girl. Purpose gets you through whatever comes.”

Ms. Richardson uses Elimina as a lead for the reader, as she was adopted by a Mainland woman and raised by her until she died while Elimina was a young girl. As such, Elimina has been shielded from the truths of Mainland and Sossi history, so the reader discovers the shocking truths at the same time as the Elimina does. This makes for an engaging read, and one’s interest is fully held throughout the book. At about the halfway point in the novel, it all comes together for Elimina and now fully informed, she knows what she must do to escape the burden of “Redemption Freedom” for herself and for the Gutter people.

Ms. Richardson has given us an inspired twist to the slavery trope by making the setting Gutter Child in an imaginary country. This serves to separate acknowledged black history and set it on a different plane. It is notable too, that technology is almost non-apparent in this world. A passing mention of television, telephones, cars, war machinery and an ultrasound machine is all we hear of. No computers, Internet or smartphones. Books are primarily Mainlander possessions only. (However, at the Livingstone Academy there is a smuggled book of poems that a disparate and secretive group gather at night to read from.)

An astonishingly good read, Ms. Richardson’s past and present accomplishments will no doubt assist in her Gutter Child being heralded as a bestseller in 2021.

*This review is based on an advanced reading copy supplied by the publisher.

About the author: Jael Richardson is the author of The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, a Father’s Life, a memoir based on her relationship with her father, CFL quarterback Chuck Ealey. The Stone Thrower was adapted into a children’s book in 2016 and was shortlisted for a Canadian picture book award. Richardson is a book columnist and guest host on CBC’s q. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and lives in Brampton, Ontario where she founded and serves as the Artistic Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD). Her debut novel, Gutter Child, is coming on January 26, 2021 with HarperCollins Canada. 

  • Paperback : 384 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1443457825
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1443457828
  • Publisher : HarperAvenue (Jan. 26 2021)

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James M. Fisher is the owner and editor-in-chief of The Miramichi Reader. He began TMR in 2015, realizing that there was a genuine need for more book reviews of Canadian literature. It has since become Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases. James has been interviewed about TMR on CBC Radio and other media sites. James works as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologist and lives in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane and their tabby cat Eddie.