Secrets are like pods of the milkweed. They always burst open… Red Sky in the Morning
The old rocking chair faced east looking down the Qu’ Appelle valley in Saskatchewan, Canada. God knows where its journey began, but when the Cree Indian woman found it abandoned in the plains grass, she knew it was special and dragged it back to her tipi. Her young daughter, Red Sky in the Morning, was the only one that heard the chair’s past in the creaking wood.
When the Indian Act of 1876 forced this First Nations family onto reserved land, the chair traveled with them and continued to collect memories. It soothed the pain of the uprooted people and saw the hardships of life on the reserve. It sat in wait for ten-year-old Red Sky to return after she was forced to attend the Canadian government’s religious-run school. The school was a harsh environment. The children were treated as curs in need of retraining and received little kindness and suffered hard work and long hours controlled by bells and regimented routine.
Eighty years later, Red Sky in the Morning, now known as Elinor, sits in the old rocker, still facing east to the rising sun. She still lives on the reserve trading life in a tipi for a rickety wooden house that to Elinor is paradise. She is ninety-years-old and harboring a seventy-five-year-old deeply buried secret that began the day she was raped by a school employee. A secret she did not share with her beloved husband, Joseph, and after his murder, with her daughter, Louise, or her granddaughter Alice.
The secret – a daughter was the product of the rape. A child she named Bright Eyes. A child stolen from her arms moments after birth by the nuns and replaced with a grainy black and white picture. Time is now short. She wonders why she waited so long to take action on something that has pained her every day of her long life. The secret must be shared so she can die in peace. She must find her first born child and she will need the help of Louise and Alice.
Life has not been easy for Elinor but she is a survivor with a feisty spirit and an insane determination to live her life on her own terms. Her teenage daughter, Louise, mysteriously disappeared from the reserve, leaving a heart-broken Elinor to wonder for years if she was responsible for driving her away? Now years later, living in separate worlds but reconciled, the mother and daughter have a guarded relationship.
Louise’s reason for leaving never discussed between them. Louise, strong-willed like her mother, has done well with her life but she has found that she will never be fully accepted in the white man’s world. In the white man’s world, this highly educated and ambitious lawyer finds herself facing much more than a glass ceiling. Like her mother, Louise harbors a deeply held secret. And like her mother, she found a loving husband; a white man with a heart of gold who does not know her darkest secret. Their union producing a great love in Elinor’s life, her granddaughter, Alice.
Alice has a secret she shares with the reader. It’s 1968 and she is a gay Chee half-breed. A toxic mix in a mixed-up wartime world. She is not sure her family will accept her if they knew and she knew the world at-large would not accept a gay school teacher. She would lose her job.
Elinor, slight in stature, slender as a dry stalk of grass, and in frail health holds center stage in the novel. There is no doubt who is in charge during the search for Bright Eyes; the need for the search never in question but clues are few and Elinor takes matters in her own hands. Did the trio ever find Bright Eyes? I am not going to tell.
I will tell you I will never hear the wind, pluck a flower, listen to rain, or watch a tree sway in the wind the same again. Tears in Grass is exquisite in its simple prose and symbolism. It is a simple story with deep resonance to themes that plague us all; family relationships, societal strains, personal secrets that fester and affect our lives. It is a story balanced with the beauty of the natural world and the belief that what comes next after death should not be feared.
The book may not appeal to all. It is slow paced. Not in a hurry or filled with heady suspense. I savored the quiet moments of reflection with Elinor as I sat in my own rocking chair, facing my own scenic world, and listened to my babbling stream. Yes, Elinor there is no place like home.
The novel is filled with magic and as much unreal as real. A talking stuffed buffalo? Even the description of evil suffered by Elinor is handled in a manner much like childbirth itself. Painful beyond belief but instantly forgotten when you look into the eyes of a newborn. As the last chapter in Elinor’s life closes, you will be satisfied.