Maria Campbell’s biography is a classic, vital account of a young Métis woman’s struggle to come to terms with the joys, sorrows, loves and tragedies of her northern Saskatchewan childhood.
Maria was a strong and sensitive child who lived in a community robbed of its pride and dignity by the dominant culture. At 15 she tried in vain to escape by marrying a white man, only to find herself trapped in the slums of Vancouver — addicted to drugs, tempted by suicide, close to death. But the inspiration of her Cree great-grandmother, Cheechum, gives her confidence in herself and in her people, confidence she needs to survive and to thrive.
“Half-Breed” offers an unparalleled understanding of the Métis people and of the racism and hatred they face. Maria Campbell’s story cannot be denied and it cannot be forgotten: it stands as a challenge to all Canadians who believe in human rights and human dignity.
As someone who really judges books by their covers, this is something I never would have picked up on my own – you can definitely tell that it was published in the 80’s; but it was required reading for my 20th century Canadian literature class, so I really had no choice. I am so glad I had to read this though, it was incredibly powerful and raw, without any dull moments. It really is amazing that this is a true story!
This biography does an amazing job disrupting the stereotype of Canada being a fantasy land of a united, free, happy, generous people. What I really love about it though, is the way Campbell doesn’t look back on her life and critically reflect on it, but instead she just narrates it and lets the story speak for itself. It’s reads as an action packed, raw journey of determination and perseverance. It really made me conscious of how powerful racial and circumstantial privilege really is in Canada; yet how ridiculous it is that this sort of privilege even exists.
Campbell’s personal growth, especially in relation to Cheechum’s philosophy on life, was really slow burning yet amazing to watch. There was the perfect balance of plot action (unfortunately for Campbell) and character development, making for an amazing read and a powerful story.
I also really appreciated how the first chapter of the book situated the story within a specific historical context. It really helped clarify the where the story is coming from, and would especially be beneficial to people who are not familiar with Canadian history. Though this chapter is a bit of a dry history lesson, it really is necessary and sets up the book well.
The only small problem I had with the book was the host of people introduced at the beginning. I got flustered with all the names of great great grandparents, great grandparents, grandparents, parents, and other family. I especially had a hard time remembering the race or nationality of specific family members. But in the grand scheme of the novel it really didn’t affect my reading of the story too much since the story is told in chronological order and doesn’t make reference to specific past family members too much. I just wish there was a family tree at the beginning of the book! It might even be worth it to create your own while reading this for the first time.
Overall I think this is a powerful story about colonization, racism, struggle, and Canadian culture. Even if you’re not Canadian, I would highly recommend this book! Just be aware that because this is a book about struggle and perseverance, there are trigger warnings for domestic violence, drug use, alcohol use, and prostitution.