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October 30, 2015

Missing Nimama, by Melanie Florence and François Thisdale

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It’s not my usual practice here to write about a picture book that I haven’t  read with my children, but Missing Nimama, by Melanie Florence and François Thisdale, is not your usual picture book. And I didn’t read it with my children not because they don’t know about Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Girls and Women—indeed, my 6 year old does know about this terrible part of our country’s colonial legacy, a legacy that’s lasted right up to this exact second—but because she told me she didn’t want to read a story that was sad. And neither did I, truthfully, to have to give voice to this story’s achingly, awful, beautiful words: the words of a mother who has been lost to her daughter but watches over her still, and the words of a daughter who has to grow up without the mother who loves her oh so much.

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Stories of children who’ve lost their mothers are perhaps the most unbearable thing I can contemplate. So I don’t, usually. But in the case of Missing Nimama, I was compelled to read on, spurred on by Thisdale’s gorgeous dreamlike illustrations (which are similar in effect to his work in the acclaimed The Stamp Collector). I was also drawn by the story, written by Cree writer and journalist Florence. Her young character, Kateri, is raised by her loving maternal grandmother, who tells her that her mother is lost:

‘”If she’s lost, let’s just go and find her.”
Nohkom smooths my hair, soft and dark
as a raven’s wing.
Parts it. Braids it. Ties it with a red ribbon,
My mother’s favourite colour.
“She’s one of the lost women, kamamakos.”
She calls me “little butterfly.” Just like my nimama did.
Before she got lost.’

And then we hear nimama’s voice: “Taken. Taken from my home. Taken from my family. Taken from my daughter. My kamamakos. My beautiful little butterfly. I fought so hard to get back to you, Kateri. I wish I could tell you that. And when I couldn’t fight anymore, I closed my eyes. And saw your beautiful face.”
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We see Kateri growing up, thriving under the loving care of her grandmother, and under the proud watchful eye of her mother. We see her grappling with her loss and grief, learning about her culture and traditions, growing up and finding her way in the world. And the heartbreaking sadness of the story is balanced by Kateri’s success in her life—the stability she finds as she grows older, gets married, has a child of her own. A stability that is against the odds, perhaps, and I think about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in connection with the history of Residential Schools and how many social problems in First Nations communities are results from over a century of cultural genocide. Not to mention the much more direct instances of government-sanctioned violence against Indigenous women in Canada.

I think of all these children who’ve lost their moms.

I don’t think that children like mine are necessarily who this picture book is meant for, not right at this moment in time, perhaps. For the far too many children for whom this story is close to home, however, I can’t imagine how powerful it would be to see one’s own experience reflected in a story like this, Kateri’s own story an inspiring example of the path a life can take, even one that begins with incalculable loss and trauma. (Which is not to say that this isn’t an important story for anyone—it’s such a visually compelling book that I’d like to keep it around, have my children leaf through, and become familiar with. We will definitely read it together. We’ll just have to ease our way into it…)

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But then, someone might ask, why is it a picture book after all? Surely a book with such subject matter should be geared toward older readers? Should be a chapter book, at least? To which I respond that picture books have nothing to do with age. That grief and trauma don’t have a minimum age requirement either, sadly. That picture books allow this story to be accessible to all kinds of readers (and, remarkably, like all books from Clockwise Press, this one is printed in a “dyslexia-friendly” typeface). And most of all, that this story works because it’s a picture book, because of the marriage of words and stories, and how the respective voices of mother and daughter can exist together, even if apart, on the page.

Missing Nimama is a mourning song, but also a call to action. Near the end of the story, Kateri attends a public vigil for missing and murder aboriginal women: “Stolen sisters. I hold my own sign. My own lost loved one.” And the book’s final page contains quotations by family members of murdered women, from the UN Report which dictates that “Canada must take measures to establish a National Public Inquiry into cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.” And our soon to be ex-Prime Minister’s infamous shameful view on the subject: “It isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.”

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The numbers are important, inarguable. “A total of 1181 Indigenous women and girls have been murdered or went missing between 1980 and 2012.”

But it’s going to be stories—like that this one—that make the difference if we’re to give all of our daughters a chance to live in a better world.

7 thoughts on “Missing Nimama, by Melanie Florence and François Thisdale”

  1. Theresa says:

    Extraordinary post, Kerry. I remember listening to an interview with Barry Lopez, many years ago, after his wonderful picture-book Crow and Weasel had come out, and he said that good stories weren’t age-specific but should be for everyone. Everyone who needed them, whether they knew they did or not.

    1. Kerry says:

      Thank you, Theresa!

  2. Dear Kerry,

    I saw a brief review of Missing Nimâmâ in the Montreal Gazette and was happy to come across your more extensive one – with more beautiful illutrations – and your blog. I’m sure that your children will want to read it on their own when they ready, sad though it is. After all, many fairy and folk tales concern children who have lost one or both of their parents. At best, they are brought up by kindly grandparents or other attentive adults, at worst, neglected, exploited or abused. And set off on journeys. Also evocative of the spiritual “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”. Those illustrations make this book appropriate for any age.

    Would you know if there is a French edition yet?

    Bonne année de Montréal

    1. Kerry says:

      Wow, I love your comparison of connecting this book to the history of fairy tales and folklore. It makes a lot of sense there. Thank you for the illumination! And I do not think the book has been published in French, but I hope it soon is. Thanks for your comment.

  3. nancyboflood says:

    Yes, a book for everyone to read and take action in little or bigger ways.

  4. Debbie says:

    Good morning! Last week we talked on Twitter about this book.

    Here’s my review: https://goo.gl/Q6eC0U

    1. Kerry says:

      Thank you, Debbie. This is really good.

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