A Stolen Life:
The Journey of a Cree Woman

by Rudy Wiebe,
496 pages,
ISBN: 0676970486

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A Gift of Understanding
by Maureen Harris

On November 18th, 1992, the novelist Rudy Wiebe received a letter from Yvonne Johnson. Johnson identified herself as a prisoner in Kingston's Prison for Women (P4W) and a great-great-granddaughter of the legendary Cree leader Big Bear. She wrote because she had read Wiebe's novel The Temptations of Big Bear. She asked him:

"Please help me share what it is you know, and how you got it. How is it you came to know as much as you do? Why were you led? What was the force behind you? Who are you? Why did you choose Big Bear to write about? What sparked your interest in this powerful man of long ago?"

What Wiebe did not learn from this letter was that in 1991 Yvonne Johnson had been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life with no eligibility for parole for twenty-five years. She is the only woman in Canada serving this sentence. Stolen Life pieces together the complicated story that brought her that dubious distinction. The book is terrible and splendid and absolutely compelling. I read all 444 pages of it almost in a single sitting, and I've hardly been able to stop thinking about it since.

In 1973, The Temptations of Big Bear received the Governor General's Award for Fiction. Wiebe's interest in Big Bear began when he was a graduate student, and he speaks of Big Bear's life as "the story that never lets you go". It's not surprising he replied to Johnson's letter and began a collaboration that has lasted six years and produced this remarkable and difficult book. The book's story is not just Johnson's; one of its binding strands is the sense of connection between the two writers and their growing involvement in how to tell the story.

"To begin a story, someone in some way must break a particular silence." This sentence opens the first chapter. It takes courage and work to break silence, and I'm both moved and awed by the courage these writers show in risking this book. Johnson, a Native woman jailed for murder in Canada, might reasonably expect her story to be called a lie or merely predictable (as in a way happened in her trial). She acknowledges herself that she risks completely alienating her mother and others whose support she longs for. Wiebe, by choosing to work with a Native writer and taking on the role of directing and shaping the work, faces complex questions of voice and authority-a minefield he already knows. What did they hope to accomplish? What did they think they were doing? Wiebe explains:

"She has asked me to help her; I have promised her, `Yes'.and, for these years we have struggled to tell her story so that she, so that I, so that some possible reader will understand. Something.

"Why has she lived such a dreadful life, and why has she been so destructive to herself and those she loves? Why have they been so devastatingly destructive to her? How is it she became entangled in murder? What I already know of her life makes it almost too horrifically representative of what has happened to the Native people of North America; of what her ancestor Big Bear most feared about the ruinous White invasion.."

Yvonne Johnson's life has been as full of incomprehensible violence as her ancestor's. One of seven children born in Montana to a Saskatchewan Cree mother and a Norwegian-American working-class father, she grew up poor, surrounded by racist taunts and bullying. Her oldest brother, Earl, was arrested and died in jail, officially a suicide. The family believes he was murdered by police, and Wiebe finds evidence for their belief. With Earl's death, and the Johnsons' inability to get their questions about it answered, something essential in the family dissolved and her parents separated.

How do you write a book with someone who is in jail? Wiebe visited Johnson and talked to her on the phone. In prison she had begun keeping journals, trying to think about her life and what had happened. He urged her to continue and to write down everything she could possibly remember. They exchanged letters and documents. He researched the circumstances of her life, travelling, interviewing family members and people who knew her, as well as lawyers and court officials and police who were involved in the trial. The work was done slowly and painstakingly, piecing together a story full of the gaps and silences that gather around the unspeakable and the denied. Work done "so that she, so that I, so that some possible reader will understand. Something."

Johnson was born with a double cleft palate which was not fully corrected till she was sixteen. As a child she couldn't make herself understood.

"It was like being deaf but still hearing, speaking but speechless-it was there, heaping up inside me. I could not ask questions, just puzzle everything around inside my head, dreaming it, bouncing it back and forth, without any guidance to help me understand. So I learned by instinct, by watching to see and recognize what others don't, to judge myself by taking chances. To depend only on myself. There was no one else.... I think that then, on a deeper level, my spirit already knew and understood how much I was being hurt."

In addition to the racism and violence marking her childhood, Johnson was sexually abused by both strangers and family members. Her cleft palate meant she was silenced; she couldn't tell what was happening to her. At sixteen, following her arrest and conviction for driving a car without the owner's permission, a sympathetic judge sentenced her to corrective surgery at state expense. But the surgery couldn't correct the rest of her life. She was no longer in school and often lived hidden, trying to stay out of her abusers' reach. The experiences of her childhood and adolescence suggest to me it's no surprise she ended up involved in murder. What is surprising is that she wasn't killed herself along the way.

Stolen Life is full of mysteries, not mysteries like the ones Nancy Drew solved, but the mysteries of the human heart. Why did Yvonne survive? What are the connections that yield an event (the murder) or a work (this book)? One of the most puzzling mysteries this book faces is the ambiguity of family ties. So much power and so much helplessness are braided into these connections. Often love isn't enough to overcome the failures inscribed by poverty and prejudice, or justice turned rancid or violent. Both Wiebe and Johnson understand that families can be helpless to take care of themselves, that love and violence can and do cohabit within individual hearts and the family both.

Yvonne Johnson is now serving her sentence in the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge for Native Women in Saskatchewan, transferred there when P4W was closed. While she was still in Kingston she served as door and fire keeper for the sweat lodge and eventually learned she was Medicine Bear Woman, a name she then remembered had been given her ceremonially by her maternal grandmother. This grandmother also had a cleft palate, the mark of the Bear, as does Yvonne's eldest daughter. Finding her spiritual identity and her connection to this grandmother has given her the strength and understanding to begin to live consciously as a medicine person.

"So, could it be that I too, after more than thirty-five years of existence, I can be reborn under the ceremonies?

"My spirit name is Medicine Bear Woman. I ponder this greatly and still endlessly, what is a medicine person?.as the Elders tell me, all that you have experienced you must learn from, and the people who live the hardest lives can have the greatest understandings and teachings to give others. So learn well, for the sake of others."

How does a medicine person act? She might write a book. In Johnson's years of journal-keeping and letter-writing, and in her work on this book, she has made herself a writer. Through her writing she extends understanding and teachings beyond the circle of those whom she actually meets. In her first journal (begun in 1991 before she contacted Wiebe), she wrote:

"I wish I could write my life-story book. Maybe then and only then will my life be revealed, and it might help the next abused and hurting person whom the world judges and condemns as already dead. But this dead person, me, is not beyond help. Maybe in death I'll be of some use."

For this white woman reader, it's clear Johnson gives help as well as asks for it. I hope the publisher has sent a copy of this extraordinary life-story book to Tom Wappel, M.P., and I hope he has the gumption to read it. On March 18th, 1991, the Crown Prosecutor J. Barry Hill said in his address to the jury sitting in Yvonne Johnson's trial: "In this case you are exposed to people who are obviously very different from you and me. That's reality. It would be nice if all the Crown witnesses to a murder were bank managers and accountants.." While I've been engrossed in this book and writing this review, the Walker trial has been underway in England, and I think it would be nice if we stopped thinking that people in suits never drink wine in the morning and never commit or witness murder. What my mother calls "the best of regulated families" provide prime settings for denial and violence, with their possibility of murderous consequences. We're fools to pretend otherwise, and doubly fools to do it as we drink our morning coffee and read the daily paper. We desperately need the lessons offered by Yvonne Johnson, who has looked hard at her life, trying to see and understand what she has done as well as what has happened to her, and who seeks from what she has learned to make amends.

In their collaboration on this book, Yvonne Johnson and Rudy Wiebe show us the importance and the possibility of listening and speaking, of making connections (among people, words, events), and of offering what the connections teach about the difficulty of being human beings. Their hope, which I share, is that such offerings strengthen the human community. The book would not have been written without their collaboration and the feeling of connection beneath it. Take Yvonne Johnson's word on that:

"Nothing just happens, my friend, unless it was meant to be.... If we are guided under the Bear, then even our futures can be changed.... You and I may have been chosen long ago to meet, and our past has given us each a gift of understanding."

-Yvonne Johnson to Rudy Wiebe,

24 December 1992 

Maureen Harris is the author of A Possible Landscape (Brick Books).


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