Review by Chaylene Ribbonleg
Anna Marie Sewell’s Humane is published under an independent local publishing group, Stonehouse Publishing Inc., a small publishing company that prints out 4-6 titles a year. The publishing company tries to promote up and coming Canadian authors with an emphasis on fiction and original work. Sewell writes within Indigenous Literature and poetry. Her catalogue includes two critically-acclaimed poetry collections: Fifth World Drum (2009) and For the Changing Moon: Poems and Songs (2018). Sewell’s career highlights include being poet laureate in Edmonton, a founding member of Stroll of Poets Society, and an editor for Write magazine. As a part of her position as a writer-in-residence at Macewan University, she wrote her first full-length novel, Humane.
The author is a metis woman, who is part Annishabe, Mi’kmaq and Polish. She lives in Edmonton but she’s originally from Ontario. She works mainly in the Edmonton area, and her career has mostly featured her as a poet and a performer. Humane is her first novel, and it’s written in her likeness. The main character Hazel is also metis, part-Annishabe and part-Slavic with origins in Ontario. The book is of average length, and it should take a few hours to read. Personally, it took me a while to digest and read through it to fully understand the plot and narrative.
The story follows an unlicensed P.I., Hazel, as she investigates a Indigenous woman’s murder. The other characters are Hazel’s two daughters, Missy and little Frankie, her dog-werewolf shapeshifter Spider, and Devin, Hazel’s nephew. The story intertwines all the character’s around the murder of Nell August, a prostitute and a drug addict, who was killed in a mysterious attack.
Missy befriends a mystery man named Maengan (who also happens to be a shapeshifter), and their friendship turns into romance as they uncover the secrets of their shared history. The murder mystery eventually ends in a shocking conclusion as they find out who killed the misunderstood character of Nell August.
In a story that connects Hazel to her roots, we see a character struggle to comprehend the intricacies on societal problems in the perception of Indigenous women. In her attempt to solve the crime, she uncovers her own biases and discovers some truths to the legends of her Indigenous community.
As the main characters try to piece together the last remnants of Nell August, Sewell is posing two questions: how did this happen, and how are the characters all involved?
I didn’t enjoy the book. The narrative was confusing to interpret in one setting. I understand that Sewell was aiming on a societal critique of the different components of Nell August’s murder, but I thought it was convoluted and unclear in the end. There’s a lot of different point-of-views in the whole book and because they’re so sporadic it’s hard to grasp the storyline as you’re moving through the book.
I didn’t agree with her critical language towards the Indigenous community, and I took offence to some aspects of her criticism. I think there’s a point in her critique, as a self-identified Metis urban woman, that struggles to identify and link the differences between the Indigenous rural and urban community. I understand that Hazel was on a journey to ‘enlightenment’, but it is so aggressive that sometimes it made it hard to continue reading.
I don’t think this piece of literature is enough to encapsulate MMIW’s complexity in Canada. This book does use Indigenous concepts to surround the murder of Nell August, but it falls short of justifying why some elements are emphasised, and others are not. I ultimately thought it was disorganised and didn’t give enough consideration to fully clarify the use of narrative with her death.
The critique on Indigenous communities and their issues are raised but, still, it’s hard to decipher the author’s intention because it doesn’t offer any resolution to the issues brought up. There are so many instances of the main characters’ biases and prejudices showing against the rural natives. It definitely influenced my perception of the book and its ending. I didn’t think that it was necessary to present such harsh criticism, and then to turn around and not give enough context or clarification in the conclusion. It was muddled.
If you want to get into Indigenous literature, I would suggest Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse, or Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach, or Louise Eldrich’s The Round House. I think there are better introductions to the genre than Humane, and it’s essential to start with a solid book.
I don’t recommend this book. It was too dense and confusing. If you were to take a chance at reading this, I would suggest noting the different voices clearly as you move along.
Humane is published by Stonehouse Originals