Book Review - The Strangers
Updated: Apr 20, 2022
By Courtney Maxwell-Alves, Manager of Development, Membership and Donations
The Strangers is absolutely breathtaking! Katherena Vermette’s recent novel follows three generations of women of the Strangers, a Metis family living in Winnipeg. The novel spans many years and follows the perspectives of Margaret, her daughter, Elsie, and her granddaughters, Phoenix and Cedar.
Margaret is struggling with a life of unfulfilled potential and blames her family; Elsie is a young mother battling addiction but determined to overcome it and be there for her daughters, Phoenix gives birth in a youth detention centre to a baby she will never see, and Cedar spends her life in multiple foster homes before moving in with someone she’s never met — her father. While the book follows each of these women, it is primarily focused on Cedar. As the youngest member of the family, she represents hope for a different future; a break in the cycle. One way Vermette achieves this is by writing Cedar in the first person, which I thought was brilliantly well-done. Some characters, like Margaret, in this book are not always likeable but you ultimately want to root for each of them in the end.
The irony of the name of the book — and the characters’ last name — is not overlooked. While not directly pointing this out, Vermette alludes to this throughout the book and the themes of family and strangers are prevalent throughout the story. In many ways Elsie, Phoenix, and Cedar are strangers to each other, having lived so many years apart. However, Vermette shows how these familial connections are never truly lost, particularly between a mother and her daughter, and between sisters.
Although the subject matter is heavy, there is so much to like about this book. Vermette flawlessly weaves the individual stories of each woman together, showing the impact of inherited trauma and how one generation impacts the next. Although this story is about trauma, systemic racism, and addiction, it is also about hope, love, and family. One of the many things I liked about this book is that it is about women and the strong matrilineal bonds that hold a family together. Coming from a family of close-knit women and a family that also has its own trauma, I felt that I could relate to Cedar in ways I didn’t expect.
There is one thing I wish I knew before reading this book — although not directly related to Vermette’s previous novel, The Break, it follows one of the same characters, Phoenix. There were a few questions that I was still unsure about, which are answered in The Break. So, although you don’t need to read the previous novel first to understand The Strangers as a whole, it might have been helpful to understand Phoenix and her storyline and anger.
Vermette is a master storyteller, handling complex relationships and tough topics with grace, love, and understanding. I honestly adored this book. Luckily for you, the Whyte Museum Shop still has copies of The Strangers available - happy reading!
About the Author
katherena vermette (she/her/hers) is a Red River Métis (Michif) writer from Treaty 1 territory, the heart of the Métis Nation. She has worked in poetry, novels, children’s literature, and film.
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, her father’s roots run deep in St. Boniface, St. Norbert and beyond. Her mother’s side is Mennonite from the Altona and Rosenfeld area (Treaty 1).
vermette received the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry for her first book, North End Love Songs (The Muses’ Company). The Break (House of Anansi) won several awards including the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, and was a bestseller in Canada.
Her National Film Board documentary, this river won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Short. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of British Columbia.
Her second novel, The Strangers (Hammish Hamilton) won the Atwood Gibson Writers Trust Fiction Prize and was named Chapters Indigo’s Book of the Year 2021. It was also longlisted for the Giller Prize.
katherena lives with her family in a cranky old house within skipping distance of the temperamental Red River.
Image 1: Image courtesy of Katherena Vermette.
Image 2: Image courtesy of Katherena Vermette.