Review: The Evolution of Alice by David A. Robertson

Author: David A. Robertson
Title: The Evolution of Alice
Format/Source: Paperback/library 
Published: 2014
Publisher: Highwater Press
Length: 203 pages
Genre: Indigenous fiction
Why I Read: Library browsing
Read If You: Like sombre, character-driven stories 
Quote: “Sometimes pain needed a quiet place to be, to spread out and get less sharp, I guess.” (25)
Links: GoodReads | Chapters | Amazon

 This haunting, emotionally resonant story delivers us into the world of Alice, a single mother raising her three young daughters on the rez where she grew up. Alice has never had an easy life, but has managed to get by with the support of her best friend, Gideon, and her family. When an unthinkable loss occurs, Alice is forced onto a different path, one that will challenge her belief in herself and the world she thought she knew.

The province-wide On the Same Page programme encourages everyone in the province to read and discuss a book at the same time. Readers voted this year for The Evolution of Alice.The programme includes “author appearances and special events”, though unfortunately I won’t be able to attend any. I decided to read this book because 1)the summary + reviews on the back enticed me, 2) it’s the novel debut of a local Indigenous author whose graphic novels I previously studied and 3)I’ve never participated in On the Same Page.

Though the story pivots around an awful death and follows a family’s sorrows, I found the tale ultimately satisfying and uplifting because of its deeply realistic characters. They endure tragedy, yet  remain decent human beings. No nasty or vicious people populate this story when you might expect them. That’s not to say everyone is on their best behaviour at all times…only to say that here is a story about not about vile monsters or permanently shattered souls, but about real people realizing their flaws and their troubles and trying to do better.

The local setting injected a layer of reality to the story for me. I have an awkward prejudice against books explicitly set in my home area. I assume they’ll be boring and I feel weird when locations are specified. However, I appreciated the local setting in this story. I liked Robertson’s references to places I could recognize from context alone. For example, I know the city is where I live, I walk past the coffee shop across the street from the big department store on my way to university, and I can picture the bridge a woman prepared to leap from. Instead of thinking “Ugh, this is weird, I know that place” like I do when places are explicitly stated, I thought “Hey, I know where that is!” as I put together the cues to create a location in my mind. Having to recreate these familiar places made me feel more connected to the story and the characters’ experiences.  

I also appreciate that Robertson has written an Indigenous story that isn’t solely about Indigenous issues. This book can be read as a universal tale that could teach us something about empathy.  Indigenous people are not always ‘other’; we are all the same people. This makes the story highly relevant for my fellow citizens. (Last year an ‘infamous’ article was published about how my city is the most racist in the country for its attitude toward Indigenous peoples.) I don’t want to disvalue the differences between Indigenous and White experiences. However, I think in my province’s case, at this time, we may be better served in recognizing our similarities rather than allowing ourselves to become disenchanted when we perceive stereotypical differences.

Gideon’s first person narration about Alice comprises the bulk of the tale, shifting to third person about halfway through. Robertson intersperses vignettes and some longer chapters from other perspectives. Often these alternative chapters added another perspective to Gideon’s. My favourites were the chapters about Edward, who sees Kathy on the highway when she tries to run away, and Harvey, who briefly connects with Alice in the city. A few of the vignettes felt too disjointed from the main story, such as the boy who discovers his Cree heritage.

Finally, I found Gideon’s voice, and Robertson’s prose in general, soothing. It was very easy for me to read this book in a day. On the back of the book, Alison Gilmour describes Robertson’s voice as “immediate, unflinching, and emotionally generous.” I would “unpretentious” and “articulate”, though those words seem to fall short of what I’m trying to invoke! Perhaps this passage captures it, a little bit.

[Gideon speaks to Alice as she swings.] It was a long conversation to have that way, but as I heard more and more I wasn’t about to ask her to come down from the tire swing. Up there, she was safe, and the girls were safe and that was that. After she told me everything, she stopped pumping her legs, and after a few minutes her swinging settled into a light rocking. made our visit a lot easier. I saw her struggling with it a bit, her brain that is. So I decided to say something all Elder-like to her. I pointed to an old dirt road just about 20 yards to our right. It was pretty much grown over with grass, you could hardly see it, but it was still a road. It went right through the field, right up to the distant tree line, and got tinier and tinier on its way. “You know, my grandpa used to tell me that all the roads around here just lead us right back home,” I said. I wasn’t even sure what the connection was, and after I’d said it I kind of felt dumb about it. I tried to figure what I was getting at, for Alice and for me, so I added, “But, I don’t know, maybe he was wrong, maybe roads take us where we’re s’posed to be.” (21)

    The Bottom Line: A worthy selection for the province-wide book club. In The Evolution of Alice, Robertson has penned a vivid and moving story about Indigenous experiences that has relevancy for all readers.

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