CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 21. . . .February 5, 2016
Melanie Florence. Illustrated by François Thisdale.
Richmond Hill, ON: Clockwise Press, 2015.
32 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.
Review by Barbara McNeil.
I smelled your perfume today, nimâmâ. The wind blew just right and I caught a quick hint of White Musk.
I was in the garden, picking beans for nôhkom and swear
I heard you laugh.
I turned, half expecting to see you.
Arms open. Telling me that you were home.
But there was no one there. And a moment later,
your perfume was gone too.
As the years pass by, deeper grows esteem, longing and love for three significant women in my life: my three mothers—my birth mother, her mother—my grandmother, and her mother—my great grandmother. I have been privileged to be cared for by each of them and journey to their final resting place to pay homage whenever I return to my birthplace. I miss them and know that they are with me still.
My life history with three mothers allowed for smooth entry and easy connection to Melanie Florence and Francois Thisdale’s Missing Nimâmâ because it centers a mother and grandmother in the life of the main character. Belonging to the genre of contemporary and magic(al) realism, this timely, influential, and stirring fictional work tells a particularly haunting story—that of a missing and murdered Cree woman, Aiyana, her daughter Kateri, and the child’s nôhkom.
After the death of her mother, Kateri is raised by her grandmother. However, her slain but spiritually present mother (nimâmâ) watches over her from the Spirit world. On a broad scale, this narrative is anchored in macro accounts and discourses of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in the real world. Thanks to Indigenous women, men, children and their allies, there has been heightened activism and dialogues across Canada for more than a decade to find out what happened to the women and girls and to make Canada and the world more conscious of the devastating legacies of centuries of colonization on the groups most affected by it. This book calls out and speaks up about the deeply troubling phenomenon of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls by personalizing and individualizing the story of one mother and her living daughter.
Florence and Thisdale’s storied account of a missing and murdered Cree woman illuminates for child and adult readers the fabulously important role of grandmothers (nôhkom) in the lives of their descendants among the Cree people. From the spirit world, Kateri’s mother watches as her child is looked after by her mother. Her gratitude is profound and reverberates throughout the text. She signals this by saying, “[t]hank you nimâmâ for taking on my child, though you were finished raising your own years ago … Thank you for telling Kateri about me… For sharing stories about her mother with her … For not letting her forget me.” The mother’s gratitude sits side-by-side with her lament that she is not there to partake in the culturally significant coming of age milestones in her daughter’s life. Upon seeing her daughter in her first party dress for instance, Aiyana states, “My heart aches when I see them like this. There is no room for me in that embrace. I wasn’t the one who found the perfect dress for her first dance. But I have to smile. You are so wonderful with her mother."
As the foregoing indicates, this book is deeply informed by and embedded in Cree belief systems regarding Spirits, visions and dreams*. Not only is there recognition of the deeply rooted cultural role of the grandmothers as caring keepers, nurturers, protectors, and voice of their descendants in the text, there is also an underlying belief in the spiritual presence of the dearly departed. This narrative suggests that there is an almost indistinguishable line between the material and spirit worlds—that the spirit lives on after physical death occurs as is illustrated by the voice of Aiyana, now in a “different state of being”, a spectator from the Spirit world. Thus, throughout the book there are Cree epistemological signals/symbols that afford strong connections to, and a nuanced understanding of magic(al) realism.
Missing Nimâmâ opens with an illustration that foregrounds realism as well as magic(al) realism. The focal character, Kateri, misses her mother and seeks her out in her dreams. Lying in bed, Kateri dreams of a past that included being with her nimâmâ—her mother and “listening to her nôhkom (grandmother) telling trickster stories around the fire.”
The textual narrative evokes magic(al) realism. This begins on the first page where we find the following words on the blanket that covers the sleeping Kateri: “She dreams. And dreams some more. In dreams she finds me and she’s just a girl again...” It is the words, the text that signals the narrative voice of her mother. They are the first words in the story. This is her story.
Kateri’s mother, Aiyana, speaks from the Spirit world—an act of “creative communication”**. The mother magically narrates (her words italicized) and points out that in her dream Kateri is “[l]eaning against a mother, her nimâmâ” and reminds us that Kateri “will lose” her nimâmâ “all over again when she wakes.” Backgrounded in Thisdale’s evocative (first page) illustration is the child “leaning against” her mother, a fire and the family home. Above the fire is the Cree word nimâmâ painted in a way to suggest that it is crying, raining down and/or emitting parts of itself toward the sleeping child. Thus, from the outset, Kateri is represented as one who had a loving and caring relationship with her mother and who now often seeks her out in her dreams. Her mother is depicted as one who cherished/cherishes her daughter and is now magically present in her life from the Spirit world. Aiyana’s spirit self is achingly aware of the pain her physical absence causes the child. Kateri misses her nimâmâ. The permanent absence of a mother is no small thing in the life of a child.
In each subsequent episode of the book, magic(al) realism is evoked when the mother narrates what is happening to Kateri and movingly recounts what happened to her. In the second episode, for instance, Kateria asks nôhkom for her mother and is told that “she’s lost.” The child wants them to go find her, and the grandmother gently and truthfully points out that “[s]he’s one of the lost women.” The mother watches this exchange from the spirit world and laments. The mother’s lamentation is that she was “Taken.” Recounting the tragedy that befell her, she states, “Taken from my home. Taken from my family. Taken from my daughter. My kamâmakos. My beautiful butterfly...” The mother’s lamentation is similar that of her daughter and her own mother.
The first images in the picture book initialize a fundamental premise of human existence: the never-ending missing of loved ones unexpectedly taken from us — ripped out of our lives. This phenomenon is particularly painful for children and others left behind by the missing and murdered women and girls—they were taken suddenly and cruelly. Through the first images in the text, the author and illustrator combine their talents to validate the missing and murdered woman—she was someone’s loving and treasured mother as well as daughter, and a valued member of a Cree nation — deserving of life and the full dignities of being a human being. Her cruel and untimely death must not only be registered by sociocultural tools such as children’s literature, but accounted for by societal institutions such as publishing companies (and other media entities), the criminal justice system and the democratic state, itself, in view of the existential threat posed to Indigenous nations and the wider Canadian population by the snatching and murdering of Indigenous women and girls. Such are the rivetting discourses and subtext of this thoughtful book.
On the second page of the book where the awakened child asks her nôhkom, “Tân’tê nimâmâ”—“Where is my mother?” Her nôhkom tells her what many Aboriginal grandmothers have had to tell their grandchildren when a similar question is asked: She is “lost”; “She’s one of the lost women …” This textual exchange is paired with an impressive illustration that displays Thisdale’s delicate appreciation of the subject matter with which he works. Through a close-up of the faces of Kateri and her nôhkom, he deftly pictures the loving intimacy, the caring, trusting relationship between the two. Kateri is reassured by her grandmother’s love for her and her lost daughter (her nimâmâ) when nôhkom ties her braided hair with a red ribbon—her mother’s favourite colour and when she calls her by the name Aiyana called her daughter: “kamâmakos” –“Little butterfly.” The missing and murdered mother and daughter are forever a part of their discourse, their lives …The missing does not end. The questions Kateri poses and the answers and stories her nôhkom tells keep the memory of, and feelings for Aiyana alive.
In the above scene, the mother’s presence is symbolized by the illustrator through the Cree word for butterfly that is featured above nôhkom’s head, by the whitish butterfly near nôhkom’s left cheek on the right side of page and by the grey-black butterfly painted on the left page. Represented here is evidence of Cree metaphysics and epistemology. Jaine and Halfe (1989) explain that the Cree people believe that the “Spirit is eternal and that when the body is no longer available, it is only a physical death and our journey continues on.” So “[a]lthough the body undergoes physical transformations, the Spirit remains unchanged. When the body is no longer viable the spirit ascends into another realm. Separation from the body does not necessarily mean that all ties to people are disconnected. The Spirits have the power to manifest themselves to the human eye and mind as well as to communicate with us.” (Jaine & Halfe).
Thisdale is sensitive to Cree beliefs and traditions and articulates this by using the kamâmakos (butterfly) as an iconic symbol of Aiyana (Kateri’s mother) selectively throughout the book. The kamâmakos appears on: Kateri’s blue blouse during a classmate’s indelicate comment about Mother’s Day, on a night table outside Kateri’s room when she had a nightmare, outside her home when she thought she caught a whiff of her mother’s perfume, on a table and on the mirror when she tried on “the perfect dress for her first dance”, as a feature on her mother’s necklace that was offered to her by nôhkom on her wedding day, on a chair opposite Kateri as she ponders motherhood, and when she receives news that her mother’s body had been found. As represented by Thisdale, the kamâmakos is an effective leitmotif in this important story. It is symbolic of Aiyana’s—Kateri’s mother’s presence and their mutual yearning for and missing of each other.
On the same page where Kateri asks her nôhkom for her mother (p. 2 of the text), the author deploys a powerful narrative technique that is used throughout the book. The page is bifurcated: on the top half, the narration is done/controlled by Kateri, and on the bottom half, it is carried out by the spirit of her mother who tells her own story and who watches and comments as her daughter matures and comes of age. Somewhat similar to a duet in opera, the mother and daughter are on stage together; they are linked, eternally connected, and in sync with one another on a deep metaphysical level. On this page, the spirit of the mother laments on how “she fought so “hard to get back” to Kateri and how, when she could fight no more, she “closed her eyes” and pictured the “beautiful face” of her daughter.
The author is to be applauded for using this narrative technique to structure the story she tells. The bifurcation creates space for the dead mother’s presence and her caring and tender voice. This is important for the real children of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and also for those reading about them. The real children of the missing and murdered women need to know that their mothers cherished them and would choose to be physically present in their lives if only that were possible. Furthermore, the bifurcation that permits the amplification of the loving maternal voice is important for other readers as well because it humanizes, dignifies, and validates the missing and murdered women. We are positioned to care about them and to be activists on their behalf. The missing and murdered women are profoundly missed—missing them is an important aspect of our existence, of our evolving humanization as readers via critical transaction with this literary text. Missing is a metaphor and metonym for action, activism, and resistance against the root causes responsible for the disappearance and murder of the women and girls.
Through the unique narrative style used by Florence and the reverential images of Thisdale, readers walk alongside Kateri and her spirit mother during the different phases of the daughter’s life: starting school holding onto to her nôhkom’ hands, learning to make bread at home with nôhkom, experiencing nightmares and calling for her mother, feeling her mother’s presence but not being able to see her, Kateri’s first dance as a teenager, dating and courtship, getting married, pregnancy and birth, at protests focussing on the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and ultimately receiving a call saying the authorities had found her mother though not in the way Kateri or her nimâmâ had dreamed about—their physical reunification. From the Spirit world, Aiyana says to Kateri, “…I’m here. I’ve watched you grow up into a beautiful, kind, wonderful woman. I am at peace with that now. It’s not the ending we dreamed of. But it will be happy enough kamâmakos.” The preceding words accompany the penultimate double page spread of the book where we see a weeping female face embedded in the land, a red telephone sitting on a black table decorated with images of kamâmakos and where our eyes follow a powerful stylized rendition of a maple leaf that appears to metamorphose into a liberated kamâmakos. The final illustration beautifully captures the magical aspect of the book—a mother’s face high above the clouds blowing kisses toward the child she left behind.
The compelling end to this fictional work that is informed by tragic events in the material world illustrates that the book has, and performs, a literary and aesthetic as well as a social justice function. When, as adult and mother, Kateri joined others at a rally/march/demonstration to draw attention to, and advocate on behalf of, her beloved mother—Aiyana Cardinal—and other “Aboriginal women” who “never came home”, she enacted the social justice function of this picture book. Kateri places herself among those who care about the missing and lost women and girls, and who call for the interruption of the material conditions that provoke the “violence inflicted on Aboriginal women” (creators’ note). According to information found in the creators’ note at the back of the book, such violence is “rooted in the deep socio-economic inequalities and discrimination their communities face, which can be traced back to the period of colonization.”
The creators, Florence and Thisdale, position us (child and adult readers alike) to recruit and summon an anti-colonial, decolonizing vision. Missing Nimâmâ challenges us to care; to be conscious of, and to take action to reduce and ultimately eliminate those socio-economic inequalities and discrimination that led/lead to the demise of the missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. The book gently and committedly pushes back against indifference to such a tragic phenomenon.
Missing Nimâmâ lies on a continuum that moves between poignancy and hopefulness. It is a lamentation driven by love and hope. Thisdale’s use of a variety of colour palettes—greys, black, greens, mauve, reds and orange—effectively expresses and produces the alternating moods of this fictional though realistic story. This very worthwhile work is an important addition to Canadian children’s literature; it stories and makes accessible to children and other readers the painful and ongoing tragic events suffered by the missing and murdered Indigenous women, their children, families, communities, and allies. By carefully writing and picturing this perceptive and sentient book, the creators of Missing Nimâmâ provide a dignity affirming and developmentally appropriate text that parents and teachers can use to respond to and/or broach the subject with children. Similar to residential school experiences, the stories of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls are ones that need to be told, listened to and acted upon in the interest of deepening a culture of care and respect for the material, physical as well as cultural and psychological well-being of all Canadians. Missing nimâmâ initiates that necessary journey. It is a stellar achievement by Florence and Thisdale. Please read it.
Barbara McNeil is an instructor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina.
* Jaine, L. & Halfe, L. (1989, March). Traditional Cree philosophy: Death, bereavement and
healing. Saskatchewan Indian, Retrieved from
**Maskêgon-Iskwêw, Â. (1995). Talk Indian to me #2. Retrieved from: http://ghostkeeper.gruntarchives.org/publication-mix-magazine-talk-indian-to-me-2.html
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