Best of intentions
Molleigh Royston, a non-Indigenous teacher faces challenges at a school in a remote First Nations community.
August 15th, 2023
At the start of the new school year, Molleigh is bluntly asked by one of her new students, “Teachers always leave, will you stay?”
Review by Trevor Carolan
In her previous novel The Heaviness of Things That Float (D&M, 2016), Jennifer Manuel set her work in the fictional, isolated community of Tawakin on Vancouver Island’s northwest coast, an awkward distance by sea or air from Port Hardy. Those familiar with that acclaimed first work will recognize some of the characters and certainly the same rugged land and seascapes in this new book, set chronologically a little earlier.
In Manuel’s follow-up novel The Morning Bell Brings the Broken-Hearted (D&M $24.95), once again there’s a mystery involved and Manuel’s observant eye evokes details drawn from her own time as a schoolteacher working among the Nuu-chah-nulth. Indigenous customs, anecdotes and myth are depicted with nuanced regard for the protocols of sharing First Nations imagery from life along the coast. We’ve got a storyteller in control of her materials.
Foregrounding all this is Tawakin’s Indigenous differentness. Entering into it is the novel’s 39-year-old schoolteacher protagonist from suburban Vancouver, Molleigh Royston. From the inclusion of Nuu-chah-nulth language phrasings that one receives from childhood, to the intimidating darkness of the omnipresent forest surrounding her, life as a teacher among the hundred souls of this fishing village, Molleigh intuits, also obliges being a learner.
In post-colonial times, any work by a non-Indigenous author addressing or portraying First Nations peoples and their cultures is bound to receive a critical eye. Yet, if we look beyond knee-jerk dissonance to a deeper understanding of BC’s colonial legacy and its manifold hurts, we’re likely to find messages of significance in this quintessentially West Coast story. There will be pain, yes, often the legacy we are reminded by the author, of a grim colonial history; yet readers can expect authentic portraits of real communal joy as well, especially among the women and elders of Tawakin, and of an everyday resilience in the face of marginal economic circumstances.
Molleigh has been there just over a month. At 39, she has seen a seven-year marriage collapse and her prior artistic career fail to ignite. Her possessions are a scattering of cardboard boxes. Teaching, she admits, was “a late career choice.” In Indigenous communities like Tawakin, she realizes, it means “being on call twenty-four hours a day.” Chase Charlie, a roustabout character from Manuel’s earlier novel, sums it up bluntly, “Teachers always leave, will you stay?”
Borrowing from her earlier novel, Manuel categorizes outsiders who work on the Reserve as either “Users, Runners, or Saviours”—some already leap-frogging into better positions elsewhere; others wanting to escape their old life; some that yearn to feel good about “saving” First Nations people. Molleigh briefly considers whether she might be a little of all three. Beset by doubts in an unfamiliar environment rich in secrets, her test is to imagine what actually belonging to a place like Tawakin could involve. Teaching there means “trying to figure how to out-teach the broken lines, the frowns, the fears.” Unaccountably, she’s also nervous about the forest surrounding her. She imagines returning to the city.
Challenges begin when Molleigh is faced with a menacing, possibly neurodivergent student, Hannah, whose mother fends off any attempt at a medical evaluation. It’s an uneasy stalemate. For relief, Molleigh sketches portraits of her students that she hopes might inspire them someday to ideas beyond a life of fishing and logging.
Meanwhile, Mr. Chapman, the school principal and another newcomer, thinks that he brings hope. He jokes with students and believes people become the stories they hear. Experienced in Northern BC education, Chapman has a proprietary air with a biblically-cadenced speaking style. Yet his personal life remains closed.
When an unsettling story arises about a nearby island that children are not allowed to visit, inevitably Molleigh is drawn into a taboo-breaking mission there. Manuel’s basic elements are now in play. Weird things happen, and Molleigh clicks in and out of an old, disturbing memory. There’s an intimation of possible sexual abuse, never specific, but a lingering suspicion. At a gathering, an elder with inner-seeing ability explains things, declaring there’s bad energy present, “dark…sharp as broken glass.”
It’s not for reviews to re-tell the story. Manuel’s prose kicks into overdrive with her accounts of typical daily incidents at Tawakin that are genuinely enlightening—a spooky tale for kids about The Basket Lady; the way an isolated community rallies in an emergency; how a schoolteacher learns from a pupil why children’s stories are make-believe, “Because they make you believe.” Then, after sorrow, there’s a traditional shell-gathering expedition where Molleigh connects with the village women, finding joy within their sadness—an event that leaves her questioning how she’d survive in any other place “where there is no marveling, no celebrating, no sharing.” And finally, there’s a shared secret and an answer; with problems like Hannah, how does a wavering teacher find a way to stay?
Good mysteries need false leads. Within an atmosphere permeated with myth and Indigeneity, Molleigh encounters her share. There’s the reality of unresolved trauma that can torment like a night-cramp. And there’s a necessary cleansing (brought about because Molleigh does something inappropriate) that some may find believable and confusing. Credible endings often need a villain and a means of knotting things back together, but not everything follows that maxim in this tale; there’s deep beauty and a waft of “feelgood” too, that some may find a bit too easy. Yet equilibrium is bound to follow stormy weather. Reconciliation between people is like that, it’s a wind that has to trade both ways if it’s to succeed. But we’re in Tawakin here; sometimes what you find will not be what you were seeking; sometimes, what you will find cannot be sought.” 9781771623193
Poet and author Trevor Carolan was a professor of English at University of the Fraser Valley for many years.