I’ve had the book Melanie Bluelake’s Dream sitting by my computer for while now. I haven’t wanted to return it to the library until I write something about it, but I haven’t known what to write. It is a children’s chapter book by Betty Dorion about an eleven year old Cree girl who leaves her reserve to go live with her mom in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. She’s not happy about leaving her Kõhkom (grandma) and her community. The usual nervousness about starting a new school in a new place are compounded by poverty. She can’t afford the school supplies. She and her mom are basically couch surfing, moving between different friend’s homes because they lack one of their own.
The river plays a special part in the story, as she realizes the river connects her old home with her new. It’s my river too. I’m from Alberta, and I used to live in a town whose existence is owed to the North Saskatchewan River. But the rest of the story isn’t my story at all, and I feel a bit guilty peeking into Melanie Bluelake’s life, though I know its just a book and books are meant to be read. It’s like the temptation to look away from someone scarred so as to not appear to be staring, I want to look away from the book, embarrassed to see the poverty I know exists in Canada.
In the story Melanie tries to hide the poverty. There’s a free lunch available to her at the hall across the street, but she rarely eats there. Her mom skips the teacher-parent meeting:
Melanie watched her smoothing out wrinkles in the blanket. When the last wrinkle was gone she sighed. Then she said, “I don’t want to go because I can’t afford to get your supplies yet. And I don’t know what to say if she asks me about it. And then she’ll probably ask me if I found a place to live yet. And I’ll have to say not to that too. And I haven’t started school.”
Melanie tries to keep quiet about the poverty partly for embarrassment but her mother has a different reason for wanting to keep quiet about it: fear. Not everyone attempting to help can do so in a way that is truly helpful. I know from my experience with an anti-poverty group that one of the added challenges for poor families is the fear that if they seek help social services will become involved and decide to take the children away, so I can understand the concerns raised in the book.
Of particular interest to me are questions about what is necessary for a child to have a good life, and a parent to be a good parent. What does it mean to be housed? In some studies couch-surfing is counted as a form of homelessness. What does it mean for parents and children to be homeless?
I think the book is an important one for Canadians to read. Half of first nations children in Canada live in poverty. The UN has been investigating and reports we have a crisis situation, with people living in third world conditions. Melanie Bluelake’s Dream is a way of introducing non-native children to the reality of the situation in a fairly gentle manner. There’s talk about poverty, and about the lack of hot water on the reserve, but the reserve is still painted in a fairly positive way. It is Melanie’s home and she loves it because of that. For native children it could be a chance to see aspects of their lives in print. Melanie is a strong, likeable character.
Inside the book cover are the acknowledgements of where financial assistance for the book came from: Saskatchewan Arts Board, the Canada Council, the Department of Canadian Heritage, and the City of Regina Arts Commission. Next time you hear people rant about money wasted on the arts, this is the book to think of. Government funding helps get books that reflect a diversity of views and experiences.
The library copy of the book also has a little sticker inside it saying:
“This book was purchased from GoodMinds.com, an Aboriginal owned distributor. www.goodminds.com“
The book can also be purchased from the publisher, Coteau Books, a publishing company based out of Saskatchewan.