USEREVIEW 078 (Capsule): Approaching Fire
Approaching Fire (Breakwater Books, 2020)
ISBN 978-1-55081-853-6 | 192 pp | $19.95 CAD | BUY Here
Michelle Porter’s 2020 memoir, Approaching Fire, approaches its subject with depth, sensitivity and purpose. Following Porter’s journey to find out more about her great-grandfather, the Métis fiddler Léon Robert Goulet, the book deftly blends research, reporting, personal narrative, family history, poetry and found media. Print ephemera anchor the factual discoveries Porter makes about her great-grandfather’s life, while bearing witness to the historical injustices of land removals and the ways settler Canadian society has represented, and failed to understand, the Métis nation.
Through the story of her family’s past, Porter interweaves a motif of fire. The forest fires raging in the summer of 2018 and in archival press clippings remind the writer of the urgency of the climate crisis, of the effects of trauma. But a thread following a B.C. researcher in fire ecology also reveals forest fires’ role as traditional land management by Indigenous groups, who used controlled burns to keep forests healthy.
“If you can work out the details of a fire’s relationship with a given place, you can read the stories,” Porter writes. It’s a poignant connection, and one that allows her to question a narrative that has so often been imposed upon the Métis: that they are people who “live between / two worlds” rather than a nation that was displaced and dispossessed. People on the margins have always “found life and continuity in their stories,” Porter writes. In drawing together those stories, she weaves a beautiful tapestry.
I’m recommending this excerpt (p. 72) because it speaks to the heart of one of the themes that runs through the book: the shaping of historical narrative and how that narrative may conflict with lived experience. “Some say the Métis / live between / two worlds / life lived like a / suspension bridge / rattling in the wind / reaching for one side and for the other / That doesn’t describe what I know / about my great-grandfather / or my grandmother / my mother myself/ That’s the story about Métis / that was convenient / for stealing the land.”