Debut novel an ‘exercise of empathy’
By Darren Lum
Published Dec. 4, 2018
The new novel A Child is a Piece of Paper is shining a light on the dark truth behind Canada’s residential schools.
It’s the debut novel for Lance Crossley, who worked two years for the Haliburton County Echo and the Minden Times starting in 2004.
He calls this fiction a work of passion, revealing the inter-generational effect of residential schooling on the Indigenous population of Canada.
“A six-year-old boy’s idyllic childhood is shattered after being torn from his remote northern reserve and forced into a Catholic-run residential school at Dresden Lake,” a summary of the book provided by the author reads. “At Dresden, where the mission is to ‘kill the Indian in the child,’ he lives in a constant state of terror while trying to survive the ever-increasing cruelty of a depraved schoolmaster. When the brutality becomes unbearable, the only option is to escape, a decision which ultimately ends in tragedy.”
“It’s a book that forcefully places the reader into the brutality of this system we had in Canada,” Crossley said in an interview.
The Truth and Reconciliation report revealed that the children of parents who attended residential schools are more likely to commit suicide than they are, Crossley said.
The last residential school closed in 1996.
Many Canadians may know the facts surrounding residential schools, but will never know the pain endured there.
Fiction can help convey some of that feeling.
“There is a difference between knowing and feeling. That’s one of the things a novel can do that a history book can’t, right? The government basically legislated the theft and abuses of these kids or at least let it happen,” he said.
He had 90 rejections for this debut novel. “No one was interested in doing this story so I did it myself,” he said.
Crossley credited his former boss and Echo/Times past editor Martha Perkins and the job opportunity at the Echo for helping him grow as a writer.
“Martha gave me complete freedom to develop my craft. Freedom to fail and freedom to succeed. That time there was probably the most valuable writing training I had anywhere. Absolutely, this book in part owes a debt to my time in Haliburton,” he said.
Crossley acknowledges this time of year is conventionally associated with lighter subject matter, but said there wasn’t a marketing plan behind the timing for the completion of the work.
“I’ve been with this project for three years. Like a mother in labour, there was no choice. There was no strategy at all behind it,” he said.
He isn’t working on anything specific now, but promises this won’t be the last book.
He started writing the novel in December of 2015 and said the subject matter spurred him on like no other literary efforts he had before.
“In a way I guess it was an exercise of empathy for me. I wanted to explore the sensation that was stirring in me after reading the survivor reports,” he said.
Crossley was inspired by the stories he learned through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report. “I was just really moved by what I read,” he said.
A month or two later, he visited Fort Hope (the place his book is set in the beginning) for the Ministry of Transportation where he produced mini-documentaries, visiting remote airports under their purview.
It was on these trips his newly acquired knowledge was bolstered from meeting the Indigenous people who left an indelible mark.
He also learned northern communities such as Fort Hope had a boil water advisory for 20 years. “It just sort of shocked me a bit,” he said.
In March, CTV reported there were “81 long-term drinking water advisories affecting more than 50 Indigenous communities across the country.”
Crossley remembers how the deaths from water contamination in the community of Walkerton, Ont., led to changes to water treatment practices while Indigenous communities live with unsafe water year-round.
“Canada is a great place to live,” he said. “But if you’re Indigenous that’s not necessarily so.”
Statistics Canada reports Indigenous youth are over-represented in the correctional system. Indigenous youth account for 46 per cent admissions to correctional services in 2016 to 2017, but represent just eight per cent of the Canadian youth population.
“I think we’re at the beginning of the awareness stage of what happened with these residential schools,” he said. “Now, the phrase the residential schools is on the tip of our tongues. Prior to the Truth and Reconciliation report, nobody talked about it. Basically nobody knew about it in the mainstream culture. Now that’s changing, but I think what the novel adds is a way to ... not just see it as abstract history, but to truly be placed in the middle of what it was like to be in these residential schools. I like to call it felt knowledge. I just hope it fosters some empathy and awareness.”
A Child is a Piece of Paper is available for purchase at Amazon.ca or books2read.com/u/meA1dZ.