Book Review: Daughters are Forever by Lee Maracle

Lee Maracle’s Daughters are Forever is told from the perspective of Marilyn, a 45-year-old Aboriginal woman who works as a social worker in Vancouver. Marilyn has two daughters, Cat and Lindy, both in their early twenties. Marilyn and her daughters love each other intensely. However, Marilyn struggles with the guilt of how she mothered her daughters when she was younger: “guilt, grey and cold, chilled her” (Maracle, 2002, p. 94). When her daughters were young, Marilyn would hit them with a wooden spoon. She also drank beer heavily and was emotionally detached from her daughters. “Her involvement was coldly clinical, emotionless.” (p. 113)

In her professional life, Marilyn counsels Elsie, an Aboriginal woman who had her kids apprehended by social services. Marilyn counsels Elsie on how to get her kids back and experiences tension between her Western training and her intuition as to which approach to take: “Marilyn was bound by her Western ethics. Holding to the discipline these ethics called up sometimes meant betraying mothers” (p. 83).

The turning point for Marilyn occurs during her trip to Toronto, where she gives a speech at a conference on Aboriginal issues. There, she falls in love with an Ojibway man named T.J. Her brief meeting with T.J. and the intense feelings it brings out in her lead Marilyn to assume a different approach in her professional life. She decides to give in to her intuition and put her Western training aside. For the task of helping women like Elsie get their kids back, Marilyn “had a gut feeling that the key to sorting this out lay inside the women themselves. She made up her mind to trust them and her own smarts from here on out. Elsie, I am going to let myself care” (p. 199).

After returning to Vancouver, Marilyn fully reconciles with her daughters and her own feelings of guilt. The reconciliation is complete when Cat and Lindy tell their mother about Dolly. Dolly was like a mother for Cat and Lindy. Cat describes Dolly for her mother:

She is a seer, a healer who helped us to find ourselves when we were teenagers. Oddly enough, she helped us to carry on loving you, despite all the memories. Memories of hurt, of absence, of your dead eyes, of no Daddy, of waking up and knowing you were hung over, knowing you hid your boozing. Memories of praying you would stop and just love us. (p. 148)

Lee Maracle, Daughters Are Forever

Marilyn cries and feels ashamed that she made her daughters feel this way. However, this shame is healing for Marilyn. ‘It was a good feeling, this shame. She let it sink in. It was the shame of knowing there was no excuse for what she’d done. It felt good to know she had never wanted to excuse herself.” (p. 148)

The theme of this story is decolonization. Decolonization is a sociological concept that refers to the process whereby Aboriginal people re-socialize themselves so as to heal from the pain of European colonization (Ahluwalia 2004). Marilyn deepens the readers understanding of decolonization when she reasons, “Logic told her that because the problem had been created by the outside, the solutions had to come from inside. Nazi camp guards, she reasoned could not be counted on to solve the impact that the concentration camps had on the inmates” (p. 90). The process of decolonization is explored in four ways in Daughters are Forever: as a literary, a political, a professional and a personal endeavour.

As a piece of literature, Daughters are Forever is a step toward decolonization. The story asserts an Aboriginal ontological perspective. “Salish logic” (p. 129) is described as the reader enjoys a sense of seeing the world through a Sto:Loh woman’s eyes. Also, the tone of the story is like a traditional oral Aboriginal story, with the four winds, North, South, East and West that take on an animistic spiritual quality and periodically try to communicate with Marilyn. The publication of such a work is an act of decolonization because the literary world is dominated with Western perspectives.

Decolonization is a political activity when Marilyn attends the conference in Toronto and when the author shares with the reader Marilyn’s travel diary. Over the years, Marilyn has attended events in Seattle, Cache Creek, Ottawa, and Mount Currie. The theme of these events is that Aboriginal people are coming together to protest the government to advocate for Aboriginal sovereignty.

Marilyn’s professional life consists of the work of decolonization. The government’s use of residential schools to break up Aboriginal families was a tool of cultural genocide, just as is the current practice of apprehending Aboriginal kids and placing them in the care of social services. “The very moment they shut down the residential schools, the government went on a child-raiding spree” (p. 56). “Apprehension meant, among other things, to frighten, to terrorize.” (p. 45) In her work, Marilyn helps Aboriginal women take the steps necessary to get back their kids. Marilyn sees the work of healing Aboriginal families as work that “would take time and effort to resolve the historic condition that had birthed massive child neglect among Native families…Give us the time, the resources, to explore our own solution” (p. 55). Marilyn must undergo a process of decolonization with regard to the approach she takes to counselling Aboriginal women, in the form of the tension described above between her intuition and her Western training.

The most profound act of decolonization happens in Marilyn’s personal life. Throughout the novel, Marilyn is coming to terms with both her own childhood that was wrought with abuse, and her years of abusing her own kids. In the end, she reconciles with her daughters and her feelings of guilt. She decides to take time off work so she can seek counselling to deal with the pain that seems to be part of being Aboriginal. As Lindy points out to her mother, “Most of us just hurt. Being Indian hurts, Mom” (p. 245).

The story shows that an essential part of decolonization is addressing the pain that exists between Aboriginal men and women. The story includes many instances that demonstrate the cruelty of Aboriginal men. Marilyn recalls how when she was a child, her stepfather would cruelly smirk at her as he drove past her on the highway, forcing her to walk all the way home. She also remembers the pain she felt for years after her husband, Eddy did not return home one day. However, Marilyn is careful not to dismiss men as chauvinists. Rather, when addressing a group of Aboriginal people in Winnipeg, Marilyn says, “We, the women of First Nations, need you men on our side of the line in order to keep our children. We need your love and your support and I am not ashamed to ask for it” (p. 197).

In Daughters are Forever, Lee Maracle tells the story of the pain experienced within an Aboriginal family as a result of colonization, from the perspective of a Sto:Loh woman. As an Aboriginal woman herself, and a member of the Sto:Loh Nation, Lee Maracle is able to tell the story with the authenticity and authority that can only come from having personal knowledge of the subject matter. In keeping with the theme of the story, Lee Maracle’s act of writing the book is an act of decolonization. Privileged, non-Aboriginal writers dominate the literary world and it is important for those who have the ability to engage in that world and who come from marginalized backgrounds to make a contribution. Otherwise, stories go untold and one’s ability to understand the human experience from its diversity of perspectives is lessened. This is why I recommend Daughters are Forever to all who wish to enrich their knowledge of the human experience, including sociology students.

Post script: This review was written as an assignment for a 2nd-year sociology course I took in 2004 at Kwantlen University College. The course was called Women in Canada and was by Seema Ahluwalia.

References

Ahluwalia, Seema. 2004. Lecture. “Constructing Privilege and Disadvantage.” Sociology 1240: Women in Canada. Kwantlen University College, Richmond. September 29, 2004

Maracle, Lee. 2002. Daughters are Forever. Vancouver: Polestar Books.

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