Toronto to the World – “What this is about really,” author Jesse Thistle says, describing his multi-award winning book, “is about love. How, when we are disconnected from our families and kinship structures , we spend the rest of our lives looking for love…”
If that statement, itself, does not break your heart wide open, then reading about Thistle’s journey to recovery, From the Ashes: My Story of Being Indigenous, Homeless, and Finding My Way, will. It’s his story about his birth in Prince Albert, growing up in Canada with a Metis-Cree mother and all that entailed. Since the Metis-Cree opposed Canadian rule and, after the 1885 resistance, were left to live on bits of land along the roadways as permitted by the Northern Road Allowances, having a physical home, in itself, was challenging for his family. Having a safe home was a further challenge. Thistle says, in an interview, that the Northern Road Allowance enactment gave his family “basically land that nobody wanted in the face of settlement.” In that setting, the author began childhood with a head of household he describes as “an outlaw in Toronto” who, after breaking the law, fled as far away as he could, landing at the Road Allowances, meeting his mother, and “having kids.” “They were kind of a doomed couple from the beginning,” Thistle says of his parents. “And no one was there to support them.” His father also “had addiction issues” and “wasn’t the kindest man to my mother..”. They were a family of five, Jesse, parents, and two brothers, just trying to survive.
“By the time I was three years old,” Thistle says, “all this trauma that my family had on my mom’s side kinda frayed all the edges of the cohesiveness of my family, and it fell apart…” Thistle’s story, spilled onto the pages in From the Ashes, then follows his dislocation, when his father took him and his brother to go to his own family. The details of this phase of life are particularly hard to read, especially given the knowledge that it is from birth to the age of seven that any child- subconsciously- obtains all of the ways of being in and reacting to the world that will be brought into adulthood.
Thistle and his two brothers were, eventually, pulled away from his addict father and frail mother and sent to horrific foster homes, then landed as adopted by his paternal grandparents in Ontario. It’s in this latter place and stage of development that Thistle says he got a “sense of (his) identity.” In From the Ashes, Thistle unpacks how confusion around his Native origin sent him off on a terrible journey of addiction, homelessness and eventual incarceration as result of being ostracized, bullied as a less-than outsider, and generally mistreated, but not knowing how- or even if he was permitted– to seek help.
“Because I had all this competing trauma from my history from what had happened and the way we transitioned into my grandparents’ care and the loss of my mother and father at such an early age, I was ripe for addictions,” Thistle says in an interview with CBC/Radio Canada. “It just took hold of me… It cycled into serious addictions by the time I was nineteen and my grandparents kicked me out and I became, essentially, homeless after that…”
Thistle rattled around on the streets for ten years, homeless and desperate, before finally surrendering to attentive souls at a Christian recovery facility. It’s the point at which an addict asks for help but is denied by those around him or her and seen as less-than, not deserving of help, or, even, “faking” the problem or problems that can cause further trauma and relapses that keep the addiction and anti-social behaviors cycle going. In Thistle’s case, the addiction had gone, stunningly, from stealing, in childhood, his emotionally detached grandfather’s beer, to becoming so in need, as a young adult, of his next “light up” that he braved walking into the crack-den of a notorious dealer, passing by a gun-wielding body guard, and threatening said dealer with blowing up the place (with supposed stick of dynamite hidden in his coat) unless he could score the drug he needed.
But, in all the Creator’s fairness, mercy, and wisdom, let’s not stay in that movie frame; let’s fast-forward to the author’s time in solitary confinement where he finds a Bible– the only thing in his holding cell. Thistle reports throwing the Bible across the room. We don’t know if he returns to it- and no one has yet asked him. But we DO know that, little by little, and with the support of, other, loving people who never waver in their positive reinforcements- including beautiful Lucie Thistle, a woman he’d met earlier in grade school who would, eventually, become his wife- Thistle begins gaining ground. At first, it’s with “good behavior”- strangely via the knowledge and wisdom gleaned from fellow inmates, hardened criminals, no less, who begin to demonstrate a care for him. And then with other, model behaviors of perseverance with his sobriety program and academic persistence that earn him the opportunity to not only get an education but an entree to a world in which to use his creative talents. It’s during his time of education- a miraculous do-over from the days of struggling with a learning disorder and the resulting contempt of fellow students and abandonment by his teachers- that Thistle also grows in self-confidence to become a major award-winning author. That growth is certainly exemplary, and this is a story of recovery that needs to be widely shared. However, be forewarned: this book is gleaned from the pages of Thistle’s Step Four work in his 12-step recovery program. Some scenes are not for the squeamish…
“I like to take the reader and just kinda drop them in the water, throw them in the ocean and make then swim,” Thistle says about his no-holds-barred storytelling. He seems to leave no stone unturned, too, as he endeavors to explain the depths and the heights of his despair and his personal successes that might seem “small” to the privileged and the callous but that are gargantuan to the disenfranchised and the broken. The resulting work is a stunning recovery memoir that breaks the mold, if you will, in the genre. Yes, we’re shocked and, at times, nearly completely overwhelmed by what a fellow human being has suffered. Yes, we’re relieved when things begin to turn for him, when he gains the necessary life traction, if you will, and as he is given the hope to change the way he feels about himself as he bears witness, even himself, to the resulting change in his life trajectory. But, we are also witnessing the exposing of the insidious effects of generational trauma here in this story, too. Thistle’s is an individual’s story of the collective heartbreak of a tribe of Native people.
From the Ashes is at once heart-rending and enheartening. We hate it that someone has had to go through so much on so many levels and from not a few but, seemingly, all of the usual-and-customary life supports that human beings are taught are “safe,” “reliable” and “trustworthy”: parents, teachers, family members, foster parents, service organizations, and so forth. But we are joyful knowing that this one soul has prevailed, has succeeded, and will continue to succeed. As we read, when Jesse Thistle, the man in the book vs author, experiences the victory of change in life trajectory we feel good- but then catch ourselves when we realize, in all of Thistle’s seemingly endless incidents of “hitting bottom” and all of his risings up from those, he’s not the only sufferer of this kind- and not everyone, if even eventually, prevails…
“What happened to me,” Thistle shares further in the interview with CBC/Radio Canada, “is a story of colonization. The way that things were stripped away, the way that our lands were lost, our language was taken away, our culture was destroyed- forcefully, right?- to get people off the land so that the government or whatever could get the resources. Of course, it replicates…
“Through a series of decisions I made,” Thistles says in his book trailer, “I (found) myself in treatment, eventually finding my way to love, higher education, and a professorship with a best-selling book… I hope readers are enriched and feel a sense of empathy towards both addicts and homeless people.” Since the book’s launch, Thistle has become an even more visible spokesperson for indigenous addicts and the problem of indigenous- and overall- homelessness.
“…I think that there’s a sickness in society now about the way that we look at housing,” Thistle said in an online interview. “This conception of some place to park your money or flip (houses), is a new modern phenomenon. And so I think that’s the sickness that’s driving homelessness is that- our thirst for profit…. Airbnb has apps of the sort that have been used to rent out smaller spaces for more money to less people. And so all of these factors are at play, constricting the amount of housing that’s been built for lower class people. And this has been going on now for 30 years. And so the end result is now it’s not just men who are on the margins of society. Now it’s single families, mothers, it’s old people, it’s veterans. It’s like all strata of society that aren’t making $60,000 and above. They’re the ones who are falling into… homelessness, you know, because they can’t even afford a house…We can change it, it just needs political will…
“I believe that what’s happened is that there’s been a fundamental breakdown of relations in indigenous societies across the country,” Thistle said in an interview piece with CBC-Radio Canada, “and that’s due to colonization. Relationship with language, relationship with kin, relationship with land and the natural world, relationship with the government, right? The Crown and First Nations relations, that’s broken. And if you look at it through the lens of where my people were from… we’re supposed to be helping each other in a good way,… we’re supposed to treat each other as relatives- everything in relation… so the lake, the land, the people, the government, ourselves, and with the Creator, are to act as interconnected relatives, and those relationships can be repaired through this worldview.”
“I’m hoping that it humanizes the indigenous homeless experience…” Thistle says of From the Ashes. Throughout the sadness and low moments Thistle shares in his book, his aim is true and, sure seems, this story can raise consciousness for perfection of love toward fellow human beings. Informative to a certain degree as well as inspiring, From the Ashes is a must-read for (supervised) Late Teen Readers and up. It will inspire anyone in recovery, anyone helping another person in recovery, and simply anyone who sincerely wishes to actively participate in returning our world to a state in which Creator’s goodness is respected, shared and not horded, and where the interconnectedness of all beings is not only recognized but also cherished.
Jesse Thistle’s unforgettable From the Ashes: My Story of Being Indigenous, Homeless, and Finding My Way is highly recommended, and not purely for its multiple awards, including Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for Nonfiction, Indigenous Voices Award, High Plains Book Award, and finalist pick for CBC Canada Reads. Now available in trade paper on Amazon.com or at an independent book store new you.
Future books from Jesse Thistle undertaking the topic of the indigenous collective are planned. We eagerly await them.
- Publisher : Atria Books (Trade Paper release June 8, 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 368 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1982182946
- ISBN-13 : 978-1982182946
Text ©2021 Michele Caprario Photos: Simon & Schuster/author; used with permission
Youtube video used with permission of the author
Interview pieces online credited: CBC-Canada Radio, ” Good Relatives: Trauma, resilience, and revitalization with author Jesse Thistle”