I just finished reading this beautiful memoir, From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle.
I was so excited when I ordered it back at the beginning of the pandemic, I knew it would be my summer reading pick. Just from reading the synopsis on the back, I knew it was going to be a book that really impacted me. I’ll admit it took me a little longer to read it than I thought it would, but it was worth every page.
Before reviewing the book I just want to say, it is sort of weird to review a book about someone’s life . Everyone’s life should get 5 stars, and I am not here to judge the entertainment value of someone’s life. But I want to share what I found engaging in his memoir and what I think it has to offer its readers.
This book is very well-written. It is an interesting and pleasant mixture of memoir chapters and poetry all written by Jess Thistle. The two compliment each other nicely and contribute different feelings to the story.
The book is the memoir of Jesse Thistle, a Cree-Métis man, recounting his childhood and youth growing up in Saskatchewan and Brampton, Ontario. He recounts his early childhood experiences of abuse and neglect by his father and mother, and his experiences of his father’s parents raising him for many years. He tells the story of how he loses his way at about 19 and becomes homeless, struggles with drug addiction, goes to jail, and how he eventually was able to rebuild his life afterward.
The book is written in a surprisingly honest manner and Thistle is not particularly one sided in the way he presents his experiences. He rarely throws blame on the other people in his life or on the world around him. I found this very interesting as I certainly felt inclined as a reader to cast blame on some of the people in his life (or lack thereof), and on the lack of involvement from various institutions and society as a whole.
As told in his memoir, it isn’t one thing that causes his struggles and there isn’t only one struggle to solve in order to “fix him” or his situation.
His experiences clearly show the complicated existence of many people who are homeless, struggle with substance abuse and addiction, or with repeat criminal offences, and the many systemic problems at play. For example, lack of affordable housing, lack of childcare, lack of support resources for struggling families, lack of free mental health services, violence and corruption in the justice system, as well as limited efforts for rehabilitation (education etc.) within the justice system. These things not only affect rates of homelessness but also encourage those who are homeless to remain so.
This is particularly the case for Canada’s First Nations and Métis peoples who also face the long lasting impacts of colonialism, cultural and linguistic genocide, systemic racism, and the displacement of First Nations and Métis People, their families and communities. Jesse’s story illustrates the many complex holes in the system and how services are often too temporary to make lasting change or support the individual long enough to get them out of the cycle of homelessness, poverty, crime, and addiction. All of these play a role in his journey and contribute to his struggle.
The book is definitely a hard read, he very openly describes his suffering including many detailed depictions of drug use, violence, sexual assault, childhood abuse, hunger and physical deprivation. I’ll be honest there were times I needed to take time away from reading it as his life has been so difficult and it brought up a lot of emotions for me. As such, I would suggest it be read by an adult audience as much of the book’s content would be upsetting or inappropriate for children and youth.
I had many times while reading where I felt intense feelings of anger and sadness as to how our society can turn a blind eye to people like Jesse’s suffering and do so little to help. How we continue to foster systemic racism and other systemic injustices that cause people so much pain. How our governments under invest in support services such as mental health and rehabilitation programs, shelters, public and affordable housing. As Jesse aptly attributes his ability to “get out” not only to his own efforts but also to the efforts of those who are working in the support systems that do exist.
By the end I did feel abundant happiness at how he was able to create a life for himself and get himself out with the help of those around him. But, I couldn’t help but think that there are so many others, many even that we encounter in the book, that probably never made it out.
This book is an incredible read for those wanting to more thoroughly understand the experiences and challenges facing Métis people & communities, First Nations people & communities, as well as all those struggling with homelessness, mental illness, childhood trauma or abuse, and addiction in our country and the larger world. If I could, I would personally thank Jesse Thistle for his openness and honesty in telling his story.
It is a powerful story that will help many people to better understand the challenges that are continually faced by too many in the land we call Canada. There is still so much work to be done, and I think when people can share their stories of marginalization by society there is potential for huge change to be made. I would highly recommend reading this book.