September 26, 2016
The Dependent, by Danielle Daniel
I have tremendous admiration for author/illustrator Danielle Daniel, whose picture book, Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox, was one of the best picture books I encountered last year, a finalist for the First Nations Community Reads Awards, and which has recently been nominated for the prestigious Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award. And so when I learned she’d written a memoir, I know I wanted to read it.
The Dependent is a memoir about her remarkable marriage, a relationship that begins when a headstrong Women’s Studies major meets a handsome guy in the Canadian army, and they embark upon an adventure together that requires plenty of compromise on her part. Daniel doesn’t fit the traditional mould of an army wife, and is continually frustrated by the army’s demands upon her family and also her husband’s willingness to do as the army required in order to further his career. She writes with brutal honesty about her anger and also about her experiences with depression, which begin in this memoir after she experiences a miscarriage. She also alludes to a troubled family background that colours her experience of the present and makes her a jealous and mistrustful partner. Her husband Steve, however, does not have a lot of sympathy for his wife’s point of view—like a good soldier, he doesn’t delve into complicated emotions and focuses on his mission, one thing after another. He is frustrated that his wife does not seem to have ability to work through her unhappiness.
9/11 changes the stakes for members of the military serving around the world, and so too for Danielle does the birth of her son—although Steve leaves home for three months just weeks after the birth. She is relieved when Steve finally receives a position in Canada that keeps him from having to serve overseas, but what she thinks is to be their happy ending turns into another kind of story when Steve is injured in a parachute jump and is left a paraplegic. Suddenly Danielle is no longer married to the army—and in fact the support offered to their family is almost laughable inadequate—but her husband’s disability is something new and just as complicated to navigate. What makes the book so interesting is that Steve rebounds from his injury the same way he does from everything, and the dynamics of their marriage remain unchanged: Steve goes back to school, begins to train as an athlete training for the Paralympics, and becomes a local celebrity. Meanwhile Danielle is lost is the same shadows that had been following her for years, not to mention her husband is altogether dependent on her in so many ways, and she doesn’t know who she is beyond his wife. She is angry with Steve and with the army from what it stole from them, and tired of years of compromise, and Steve is understandably upset that she is wallowing in her pain all the while he’s the one who’s been injured. He doesn’t understand that she’s been a victim too.
Years of simmering tensions come to ahead eventually, and getting to this point makes for a fascinating read. I was impressed how surprising the dynamics were between Steve and Danielle, complicated by the fact that they’re two actually human beings with all the baggage and complexities inherent. While some of the dialogue between them seemed awkward and stilted, containing the same kinds of arguments over and over (which is a marriage problem as well as a narrative one), that would be my one criticism of The Dependent. What blew me away about it, however, was its structure, Daniel’s remarkable deftness with chronology, which makes me think of her art, collage, layers and textures. The Dependent is not told in chronological order, but instead weaves in and out of time (because the idea of time as a line is a point the narrative itself serves to refute. We carry all this stuff with us). The playing with time and story, the giving and withholding of detail, is stunningly accomplished, which is only underlined by the book’s incredible, miraculous and beautiful ending, which is also its beginning, a fantastic, complicated and beautiful love story, and isn’t that always the way…