The Outside Circle: A Graphic Novel by Patti LaBoucane-Benson; art by Kelly Mellings.
Publisher: House of Anansi Press
Publication date: spring 2015
Why you need to read this graphic novel:
- Here’s the basic story: Pete Carver and his younger brother, Joey, live with their heroin-addict mom and her abusive boyfriend in Edmonton, Alberta. The Carvers are Aboriginal; beyond that, Pete has no idea of his mother’s family or his ancestry. When the novel opens, Pete proves himself to his gang by dragging drug money out of a dealer who tries to withhold some of the profits. The gang leaders reward Pete’s violence by giving him a gun and adding dripping blood to his gang tattoo. Soon after, Pete gets in an argument with his mom’s boyfriend. The boyfriend slashes Pete across the face with a knife; Pete shoots him dead.
- Pete isn’t likable: he dumps his pregnant girlfriend; he beats up a punk; he kills a man.
- He doesn’t need to be likable. Pete is compelling. The one good trait we see at the outset is his love for his brother, Joey. Love and good intentions don’t go far, though; Pete is a far from stellar brother. He can’t protect Joey from prison. Joey becomes a ward of the province of Alberta, since his mom can’t care for him and Pete isn’t around.
- History is integrated into the art and narrative at key points of the narrative. We see Joey’s mother sign the Permanent Guardianship Order relinquishing all parental rights to Joey, only the paragraphs of that document become a short history of Aboriginal children being ripped from their parents.
- Reading it is like a punch to the stomach. If you aren’t tearing up at that point – well, keep reading and you will.
- We see exactly why Joey acts as he does: because there is no feasible alternative to being a victim other than the route he takes, even though it is exactly the route we the reader are begging him not to take.
- The stats and history given are Canadian, and Albertan, and very specifically Edmontonian. Numbers are that much more compelling when they are specific to a locale. There is no getting around these facts, and they are contemporary.
- Pete becomes part of in-prison gang warfare, and nearly winds up dead. He still isn’t interested in reforming, but when the chance for change comes with the possibility of seeing Joey again, he leaps at it and spends a year in a Drumheller prison as a model prisoner.
- Which allows him to head back to Edmonton to the Stan Daniels Healing Centre for the In Search of Your Warrior Violent Offender Healing Program.
- This is the first time Pete is introduced to his people’s beliefs, culture, and history.
- The first time. Ever.
- All we’ve seen up this point is the discrimination Pete and Joey face and the grinding poverty – the utter lack of real options – that is all they have grown up with.
- Aboriginal beliefs are taken seriously. The characters are real and depicted with respect. I don’t know how to speak about the intergenerational trauma suffered. The living people who have endured this and yet chose healing and grace rather than despair and revenge are courageous beyond comprehension.*
- The author is a Metis woman with extensive experience with counselling and healing imprisoned Aboriginal men, and is currently the Director of Research, Training, and Communication for NCSA (Native Counselling Services Alberta).
- But are all First Nations cultures being blended into one? No. This story follows the healing journey of one young Native man in a particular location and a particular time. Within that particular location, it is probable that most of the incarcerated Aboriginal population was drawn from the same larger people and thus shared the same background. The exact details of the cultural practices are not delved into too deeply; the focus is on healing and reconciliation, and on reintroducing young men to their broader culture and history. Also, and this is an important also, Pete doesn’t even know who his grandparents were, let alone his nation. This is another result of colonization. The goal of this story is not to differentiate between the varied languages and customs of the many diverse First Nations peoples across Canada; for that we will need many other stories.
- But where are the women? I can hear you asking. This is Pete’s story. His primary relationship is with Joey. Both young men move in a highly masculine world: gangs and prison. Women are barely there for the first sections of the story. The narrative subtly, and then unmistakably, points to this sidelining of Native women as a result of colonization. The women are there, and they are important; but we don’t really get to see them for themselves until Pete does. It is a remarkable shift in perspective.
- It is an extraordinary healing.
- Watch for the masks.
- This is a book by an Aboriginal (Metis) writer for the Aboriginal community.
- This is a book by an Aboriginal writer to everyone, including (almost especially)** the white Canadians who are, knowingly or unknowingly,*** part of the ongoing colonization of the Aboriginal population.
- So this is a book for everybody. (Teens and older.)
- This is a book you will want to read and reread for pleasure (seems the wrong word, but it is closer than any else) AND a book that can be used in classrooms. Every high school, university, and public library ought to have this book.
CBC’s video and audio content on and by the author.
The illustrator speaks with Applied Arts Magazine.
*for example, Indspire Award Laureates, for a few easy examples of remarkable and praiseworthy people.
**almost. But this is a book that centralizes an Aboriginal protagonist and Aboriginal culture (yes!!!), and therefore is not as much for whites as it is for the Aboriginal people whose story this is.
***although honestly? it shouldn’t be possible for non-Aboriginal Canadians to be unaware of colonization and its impact on the First Nations of Canada anymore. Not if you have gone to school in Canada or read a newspaper or turned on a tv or driven through a reservation ever in your life.