In 1961, Saul is just a boy. His grandmother, Naomi, is the matriarch of Saul’s community. Even as a child, Saul can sense that Naomi is worried about something. She whispers, “The school,” and Saul knows that she is referring to the school that turned his mother, whose name is Mary Mandamin, “inward.” Naomi has watched her own children being abducted and then corrupted at this school.
During the 20th century, the Canadian government enforced a law that required Indigenous children to attend Christian, English-speaking schools. This involved thousands of young children effectively being kidnapped from their families and communities—a crime that, as evidenced by Mary’s depression, left a painful mark on Indigenous society.
Saul has a brother named Benjamin and a sister named Rachel. Saul never met Rachel, since she disappeared at the age of six. Naomi tells Saul and Benjamin about how, one day, the white man, or “Zhaunagush,” came to their community and abducted Rachel, taking her away by boat. Benjamin and Saul learned early on in their lives how to hide from white men: whenever they come to the community, the boys run and hide in the trees. Saul and Benjamin grow up learning to read Zhaunagush books. But they also learn to be terrified of the white man.
Saul’s family learns to be frightened of white Canadian society, since they associate it with the enforcement of the cruel Indian Act (the legislation that led to the creation of Indigenous schools). But Saul and Benjamin learn to read English, anyway—suggesting that European influences have infiltrated their community, and that some of these influences perhaps aren’t so bad.
In 1957, when Saul was four years old, the Zhaunagush kidnapped his brother, Benjamin. Had the white men not come armed with guns, Saul’s family would have fought them to the death to keep their son. After Benjamin was taken away, Mary collapsed in misery. Saul’s father, whose name is John Indian Horse, began selling berries to white men, in exchange for “spirits.” When Saul’s family drank these spirits, they became wild and frightening.
Historically, alcoholism has been a major problem in Indigenous Canadian communities. As Wagamese sees it, alcoholism was in part a reaction to the tragedies of Indigenous life in the wake of European colonization. Families like Saul’s, for instance, drank in part because they were miserable about losing their children.
At night, Saul is scared. But Naomi comforts him by telling him stories about the old days—the days when Saul’s grandfather used his medicines to cure disease, and when the people sang proud songs.
Naomi is the matriarch of Saul’s family, and in many ways the person Saul loves most in the world. She symbolizes the strength and glory of Indigenous tradition and culture.