The Métis diaspora, we are a braided river channel, a herd of bison on our way to the grasslands up the way, to our relations,” writes Michelle Porter in Scratching River, a literary memoir that emulates these deliberate, meandering movements over the land. Weaving together stories of her brother Brendon, her mother’s determination to find a group home for him, an instance of terrible abuse at one of those homes, and ancestor Louis Goulet’s written account of Métis life in transition during the last half of the 19th century, these braided stories create connections both written and unwritten—a wide narrative space where what’s described on the page interlinks with the meaning the mind makes between fragments.
Alternating from recent to distant past, from the voice of the author to the voices of Goulet, her mother, newspaper reports and written transcripts, the book presents the world as a complex and life-giving web of relatedness. Inextricable from the telling are stories about buffalo and prairie dogs, about the nations of water and grasses—“On the Prairies the tall grass holds the water in tight to the soil and it’s an ancient treaty everybody used to understand,”—as well as stories of trauma and healing, industrial agriculture and land reclamation, government neglect and moments of profound care. As Porter explains, the telling of one life requires the telling of all lives. “I told the story in the traditional Métis way, through a focus on connections,” she writes in the book’s afterword. “We are only understood in the context of our relations.”
Porter compares her older brother Brendon to a river, forever in motion, easily escaping all attempts to hold him in place. Given a diagnosis of autism and schizophrenia as a young person—a diagnosis that Porter’s affectionate portrayal of him makes clear doesn’t begin to encompass him and that left her family with limited options for providing him with adequate care—Brendon experienced abuse at 18, in a home near Claresholm for people on the autism spectrum, a home whose name she redacts from the excerpts of newspaper clippings and interviews she quotes throughout, making plain the years of government inaction in response to repeated reports of violence against the residents there. Interspersed with this telling is Goulet’s account of a way of life changed dramatically by the extirpation of the buffalo and the omission of the Métis from the treaty process. Two life-altering events become inextricably related as the book proceeds.
Porter struggles with her own adolescent recollection of the trauma of her brother’s injury, which required skin grafts and months of treatment. Her use of questions throughout the book, established from the first page, emulates the subjectivity of memory, as well as the act of remembering in concert, as something people do together, in conversation. Often in the book Porter poses questions to their mother or describes what routes a conversation with her about Brendon might take. The reader comes to see this story, and all storytelling, as a journey, a river, one best navigated together.
Even as she’s questioning, Porter writes with an assuredness born of story, the hearing, reading and telling of it. At its source, Scratching River is a story of home that encompasses movement and change (as learned from Goulet), as well as a family finding and making a home for a loved one who can’t speak for himself (as learned from Brendon). Scratching River is a book in beautiful motion, a book that takes lessons from the water as it finds its path over ground, a path that leads to healing and resilience.
Laurie D. Graham is the publisher of Brick magazine. Her most recent poetry book is Fast Commute (M&S, 2022).