“It is so hard, mon père, to plumb the depths of the pool of blood that is grief.”
— Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau
A boy is born, unbreathing, the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. With his first croak of life, his mother sighs in relief. But after this early brush with death, her intuition warns her that “winter” will arrive prematurely in her son’s life.
Winter Child, the first novel by Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau to be translated to English, is a lyrical journey through a mother’s grief of losing and outliving her child. With it, Pésémapéo Bordeleau, a Cree writer and visual artist based in Quebec, has created a striking and emotive script based, in part, as an autobiography.
In this story of mother and son — both remaining unnamed throughout — “winter” is used as a metaphor for death. Throughout her son’s life, the mother sees a constant force threatening to take him; and when it finally does, his death is a burden too profound to carry.
For the son winter is a physical death, but for the mother it is a spiritual one. If this sounds like an ambiguous plot, it is because Winter Child reads more like a poem. And instead of a chronological line of events, Pésémapéo Bordeleau uses words to move you through moments of a woman’s thunderous sorrow. As the mother stumbles through her grief, she converses with it, as if the way to heal heartbreak is to name it in descriptive detail:
“I am a lustrelost woman who hides behind her autumnal beauty, her abundant leaves dying with the seasons’ suns, her foliage quivering still in the winds of life, all for the memory of splendour to be shared with you when winter has passed and I reach the end of the path lined with stones that wound my feet.”
Overlapped the story of mother and son, are poignant vignettes of the mother’s own troubled past. Gripping memories of love and betrayal show how a history of residential schools and wartime conscription became a familial wound, deepening as the trauma of one generation gets inherited by the next.
There is no doubt that Winter Child is a heavy read, but it is also a story of resilience. Pésémapéo Bordeleau shows the reader how guilt is often a parasite of grief; and as the mother weathers her son’s death, she starts to release the albatross of continuing life without him.
Pésémapéo Bordeleau is a talented wordsmith and Winter Child is an amazing work of art. A nod to the translators – Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli – is also a must, as they have successfully matched the English rendition of this novel in a powerfully evocative voice.