Back in February I reviewed another memoir about residential school life set in the Northwest Territories, Albert Canadien's From Lishamie. Both were published last year and both writers spent time at the same residential school. However, to read one is definitely not to read the other and I suspect most accounts of residential school life would vary greatly both in details (though I'm sure with some similarities) and perspectives.
Whereas I considered From Lishamie very controlled and factual, My Heart Shook Like a Drum was more erratic and emotional.
The erratic part was a problem for me. At first I thought I'd slip into the free flow sort of feel, like Blondin-Perrin must have sat down over the course of a few days and just spewed all of her memories and thoughts on paper. Something about that approach feels more honest and personal. However, before long I thought some editing was in order. Especially towards the end, it felt as if she'd lost track of who would be reading the book. In one chapter she begins to write about hurdles in the way of healing; "Where's the government mandate to heal the wounds of communities," she asks, "especially the most addicted ones? Wake up!" Wake up? Who? The government? Me? Addicted communities? In a later chapter, she advises, "You have to identify your problems. If you are abusing alcohol then you must seek an alcohol treatment centre to help you get out of that addiction." Who's that message for? In the context of a book which up to this point has been about her experiences at residential school, I assume it's directed at people who have tried coping with their pasts by abusing alcohol. Not me, in other words. Was I not meant to read the book? In another instance, which I'm hesitant to bring up, she writes about being raped at 12 years old. "You left me a broken child, lying there on on the floor of a shack."
At this point I felt like a monster-- picking on the writing of a rape victim as she courageously recounts her story? So what if she slips into addressing her rapists instead of the casual reader who'd been reading her story up to that point. I went into the book to learn about life in a residential school, and the after shocks, and I got it. A few missteps with her audience here or there did not take away from the details, or the passion-- passion that I had missed in From Lishamie, if you'll remember. Structurally My Heart Shook Like a Drum may not be a perfect book, but that's not the purpose. Not my purpose for reading it, nor, I suspect, the author's purpose for writing it. My apologies to Alice Blondin-Perrin.
I'd suggest reading both From Lishamie and My Heart Shook Like a Drum for two perspectives of life in residential schools in the Northwest Territories.