April 24, 2017

Nathan

Written by Susan Ouriou
Red Deer Press
978-0-88995-547-9
152 pp.
Ages 7-12
October 2016

Bullies come in all sizes and ages.  Some are in the past and some in the present but their impact is as damaging as any trauma that can make you feel like you don’t belong or that you are not safe.  In her first middle grade book, Susan Ouriou, best known for her translations (including Pieces of Me; Jane, the Fox and Me; This Side of the Sky), tackles the heavy issue of bullying from different perspectives: a  school bully tormenting young Nathan, the historical trauma of residential schools as experienced by Nathan’s grandfather’s mother, and even the assault of Altzheimer’s on the human spirit.  All are brutal and relentless but there is reconciliation.

It’s summer, and the family is starting to move Grampa from his own home to live with them, and it’s making everyone tense.  Mom acts annoyed and can be downright rude to her father.  Dad just thinks Grampa should go straight into a nursing home.  Grampa isn’t always sure what’s going on but seems resigned to accept it.  And Nathan would do anything to keep his Grampa  as the impressive giant of a man he always was.  Grampa is especially sympathetic when Nathan, who is being bullied by a boy named Adam, is repeatedly accosted by the boy while enjoying outdoors play with a new friend Max.
…no good could come of digging up the past.  All that counted was remembering we come from survivors.  We’re tough.” (pg. 25)
Grampa takes Nathan and Max (and Nathan’s Mom, who knows Grampa should not be driving) to  the museum at the Tsuut´ina Nation to meet Elder Estella who teaches about the impact of European settlement on First Nations.  Nathan learns his great-Gramma had been First Nations and had had to survive living at a residential school, where kids were bullied by adults and didn’t have their parents around to protect them.  

The school year begins and a vicious assault by Adam on Nathan and Max leaves Nathan psychologically impacted and unable to walk and Max moving to another school.  As constant companions, Grampa, whose Alzheimer’s is worsening, and Nathan become the supports they need to survive their personal ordeals and grow stronger because of them.

Though the title suggests a book all about Nathan, it goes far beyond the young boy’s story, being a middle-grade novel dense with emotion and conflict and drama, of family and trauma and First Nations and bullies and history. Susan Ouriou whose interpretation experiences include Edmonton’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as The Banff Centre’s Indigenous Writers Program weaves the past, in terms of the residential schools and the Holocaust of WWII, with the present, and family with community.  Through her characters and the story, she shows us that there were and are many who are “some kind of strong and some kind of brave” (pg. 83) and that includes Nathan whose compassion lets him see Adam beyond a tormentor and Grampa who must live through his own torment while still looking to help others.  Nathan is a story of resilience and courage that bridges generations and offers understanding and even some degree of assurance.