This Place: 150 Years Retold is a powerhouse anthology of Indigenous stories, presented in graphic novel form by writers and artists like Katherena Vermette, Richard Van Camp, and Chelsea Vowel. Each writer takes a piece of history from 150 years of Indigenous-Settler relations in the land currently known as Canada, and conjures an immediate, emotional story.
What’s notable is how present the act of storytelling is to many of these pieces. Settler history often pretends there is only one truth to what happened, and in an effort to appear unbiased, these accounts erase large swaths of reality. Many of the stories in This Place wrestle with the familiar accounts of popular events or family “canon;” they incorporate questions about where to begin into their tellings, they bring in observers—often youth—to broaden the history’s impact and bring fresh emotion to old tales.
Some stories were familiar, at least in part: the Oka crisis, the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, the Red River Rebellion. Many more were not, though they should have been. The story of Jack Fiddler, a wendigo killer, and the complicated struggle between two cultural interpretations of justice. Police raids near James Bay where the people of Listuguj sustained repeated attacks but maintained their treaty-enshrined rights to fish. Even for familiar events, the skilled writers of This Place highlight different aspects of the story, and the cumulative impact of This Place is to stack the deck with fresh heroes. People who think with their hearts, people who provide voice to the voiceless and risk their lives to protect it, people who lose popularity, are accused of being crazy, who are humbled by their critics but never crushed.
The graphic novel format is both engaging and frustrating. It is easy to dive in, immersive and evocative. The panels are cinematic, pulling readers into cutting details and playing whole paragraphs through a perfectly-depicted facial expression. Colours and clothing help to keep characters straight. And the page still leaves room for the reader’s imagination, which saves us from problems of poor production values or cheesy acting that plague many actual cinema historical re-enactments. But the graphic novel also leaves me wanting more. More information, longer narratives, more details. It all moves by so fast, and I feel like I’m only skimming the surface of these events. Of course I could dig deeper elsewhere (the book includes a select bibliography to encourage further reading) but I still wish I could find that deeper narrative within This Place.
But the goal of This Place is not to be comprehensive. The book suggests a new perspective for settler historians, and invites readers to seek out other stories—or enact their own.