I've been on a roll with stumbling upon great books at my job at the library. This one came to me as I was shelving a bunch of returns at 10PM on a Tuesday night. I was initially attracted to the title and beautiful cover, and after I read the back cover I knew I had to add this to my reading list.
Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City is a non-fiction book about the deaths of seven Indigenous high-school students in Thunder Bay, Ontario. It came out in 2017 and became a national bestseller. The book was written by Tanya Talaga, an Anishinaabe journalist and author. She is an investigative reporter for the Toronto Star. The book has been lauded for it's content and for Talaga's writing and has won and been nominated for various awards.
The book primarily focuses on Indigenous students from Northern Ontario who are forced to moved hundreds of miles away from home to attend high school in Thunder Bay. Because of a lack of schools and educational opportunities in their home communities, these students often have to live in boarding homes and struggle with homesickness, depression, a lack of guidance, and other issues like exposure to alcohol and drugs.
Since 2000, several students have gone missing or been found dead in Thunder Bay, and very few of the families have been given definitive explanations for their children's deaths. The police often label the deaths as "accidental" immediately without fulfilling the necessary requirements of an investigation, and families are left in the dark about the proceedings. Seven Fallen Feathers chronicles these stories and also dives deep into the history of oppression and racism in Canada. Talaga describes experiences faced by students at residential schools and on reserves.
The first thing that struck me about Seven Fallen Feathers is the honesty with which it was written. Talaga inserts herself into the story at times by using the first person. She doesn't shy away from confronting prevalent and devastating biases and failures in Canadian society. She is passionate and well-informed. She is strong but empathetic and compassionate. Above all she is meticulous about details and facts. She has studied images and transcripts and coroners reports and gone back decades in time to find the roots of the problems she confronts in the book. Talaga deserves every last bit of the praise she has garnered.
The second thing that struck me is how little I know about the hardships that Indigenous communities face. I was horrified by my own lack of knowledge while reading the book. I studied Canadian history frequently during my undergraduate degree, but what I learned in school barely scratched the surface of what this book gets in to. The remote Northern Ontario settlements in which many people in the book live or are from were unknown to me before this book. And while I knew about the 1876 Indian Act and had a sense of it's repercussions, I don't think I had ever dedicated much time to truly trying to understand or at least learn about it's lasting effects. This book taught me so much about the concept and reality of intergenerational trauma.
Seven Fallen Feathers should be mandatory reading in Canadian high schools. It places blame where blame is deserved, and when I finished it I felt like I was better equipped to continue educating myself about these issues. I would recommend this book to all Canadians.
What I liked so much about this book was the way that Talaga painted the characters. She had clearly spent a great deal of time with the people she interviewed and learned details of their lives. She recreated the events leading up to the deaths and disappearances of the seven students the book is primarily about, and she did it in a way that was compassionate and sympathetic towards the victims and their families. It takes a lot of talent to write so directly about terrible events while maintaining a sense of humanity and empathy.
It is hard to review a book like this. In many ways I wish it never had to have been written at all. I don't want to glorify the contents of this book by calling it a "great read" or a "page-turner". These are real people's tragedies. But the reality is that racism and trauma are present in Canadian society, and Talaga has done an incredibly powerful job of highlighting it and pushing for better understanding. This is a must read.