Running for the Truth about Residential Schools

Reviewed by: Anita Daher

Colleen Nelson is one of those authors who writes a novel, goes away for a few months, comes back with another that blows your socks off, goes away for another few months, comes back and blows off your hat, scarf, mitts, perhaps a few undergarments. I’ve been unable to feature her until now, as I was editor of her earlier novels, Tori by Design, and, The Fall, both award-winning, both published by Great Plains Teen Fiction.

However, when she brought us the manuscript that eventually became 250 Hours, now published by Coteau Books, our line-up for the next few years was already full. To be honest, I was relieved, as there were aspects of this work that made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t the content, but the “whiteness” of the author-editor team. I’ve never claimed to be particularly brave.

Though some non-Aboriginal writers have written Indigenous characters with great success, just as many have gotten it wrong. There are highly sensitive issues surrounding the devastating impact of residential schools that must be treated with honesty, its victims acknowledged and offered respect. Also, there are subtleties of culture too easily missed by those who have never been a part of it.

250 Hours is about a burgeoning friendship between Sara Jean, a town girl who lives with, and cares for, her morbidly obese grandmother, and Jess, a delinquent fire-bug from a nearby reserve, sentenced to community service—cleaning out Sara Jean’s grandmother’s garage. The story addresses elements of addiction, abandonment, racism, and stereotype, but also gives us pure friendships, warm family relationships, and characters with the fortitude to do what they hope is right, even under duress. There is also a mystery that unfurls at a pleasing pace.

I caught up with Colleen on a running path one morning (okay, not really), and she agreed to answer a few questions.

I know you to be a highly motivated and self-disciplined writer with a crazy-fast turn-around on revisions. Can you tell us a little about your writing process?

I am now teaching full-time with a busy family life so I find my writing time is limited. I try and make the most of what I have and that means waking up around 5:00 am to write before the kids wake up!

My writing process has changed over years. I have learned that I need to let the characters guide the story. My first drafts often happen quickly (usually in a few months, if inspiration and time is on my side), but they require extensive rewrites. I have experimented with being more methodical in my planning to avoid so many rewrites, but in the end, the stories were stilted and the plot felt forced. I think what works best for me is to let the stories grow on their own and make peace with the fact that I will likely have to spend considerable time on rewrites before the book is finished. It might not be the most efficient way to write, but it gives me the freedom I need to let the characters guide the story.

You are a runner, fit and physically healthy. Is there any solitary or community practice your find important to keep your writer-self mentally ready to rock?

I do my best thinking when I run. It lets me clear my head and give me perspective on the story. Sometimes, I get bogged down with details or stumped on where the plot needs to go to get to the end point. The best way to solve my writing problems is to go for a run. Ironically (and if you saw the general state of my house, you would understand why this is ironic), house cleaning has the same effect. It’s another activity that lets me zone out.

What, if anything, sparked the story that became 250 Hours?

The initial inspiration for 250 Hours came four years ago when a friend told me the last residential school in Canada closed in 1996. I thought they had closed long before and was curious as to why they remained open so long given the amount of controversy.

I started doing some research purely for personal interest and realized that residential schools were an aspect of Canadian history that needed more exposure. I had completed my second novel, The Fall, which dealt with adolescent grief, and I wanted to tackle another weighty issue with my next book. The legacy of the residential school system was something I wanted to explore.

Did the story evolve or change in any way that surprised you?

Of the six young adult novels I have completed, this one was the most straightforward to write. There were few significant rewrites to my original draft, which as I mentioned before, is strange for me. I had a clear image of my main characters and the issues they would deal with.

Every novel I write starts with a character’s distinct voice. For 250 Hours, I heard Sara Jean first. I knew she was living in a small town and wanted to be a writer. As her character grew in my head, the story started to take shape.

I was surprised by the complexity of the relationship between Sara Jean and her morbidly obese grandmother. While they care for and depend on each other, it isn’t always in healthy ways. One event that shakes Sara Jean’s life mid-way through the book was a surprise, even to me, the writer! But that is what happens when you let a character guide you. After I wrote the scene, I realized it had to happen to move the story forward.

I wrestled with the idea of letting a romance blossom between Jess and Sara Jean, but in the end decided letting them fall for each other would have cheapened the issues they were dealing with. I like their relationship; it is one of the few honest ones in the book. They share a bond that doesn’t make sense to anyone else but them.

At times your portrayal of “townies” and their views toward those who lived on the Deep River reserve was harsh, especially in how they uttered racist comments in a way that makes us feel this was accepted and normal in this community. Also, several of the people from the Deep River Reserve were presented as awful stereotypes—drunks, thieves, criminals. It was uncomfortable to read. Was this deliberate, and if yes, why?

It is challenging writing words that I would never say myself. As I’ve gained confidence as I writer, I know readers will understand that it is the character speaking, not me. And, in this book in particular, I didn’t want to shy away from the grim reality of how some people talk about others. To pretend racism doesn’t exist in our world would have been naïve.

I spent time in a small town that bordered a reserve when I was a teenager. I remember noticing the division between the two places. But it wasn’t just racial. The cars people drove, their houses, the communities’ schools, showed a pronounced socio-economic divide.

250 Hours presents a wide range of characters, both on the reserve and in town. The characters who are survivors of residential schools had to reflect the damage that had been done to them. From my research, addiction issues are a sad reality among some residential school survivors and their children, which is why Jess’s father is an alcoholic; not because it is a stereotype, but because it is realistic.

Did you find inspiration for your crumbling residential school and nearby communities from any real location?

The physical building is based on photos of the Assiniboia Residential School, which was located in the River Heights neighborhood of Winnipeg, blocks away from where I live now. I imagined the imposing façade crumbling after years of neglect, much like some of the characters in the story.

You wrote this story in alternating points of view between Sara Jean, a young white woman from town, and Jess, a young Indigenous man from the nearby reserve. Cultural appropriation in literature has become such a concern, as we now know inaccuracies, lack of sensitivity, and even aspects of a more subtle nature can have unanticipated and damaging affect. Did you have any reservations about writing from a cultural perspective not your own?

Absolutely. I was pleased when Coteau Books gave my manuscript to a First Nations author to read before it was accepted. In her words, I did a “terrific job” with my portrayal of the First Nations characters and their life on the reserve. Nonetheless, it is a daunting task to write about another culture, especially when dealing with such loaded subject matter.

From a personal standpoint, the legacy of the residential school system needs more attention. Now that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has deemed the system of schooling cultural genocide, we, as Canadians, need to take a hard look at the legacy it has created. I hope that reading 250 Hours will encourage readers to ask some tough questions and be used as a stimulus for discussion in our schools.

Beyond your publisher assigning a First Nations reader to your novel, did you take specific steps to ensure cultural aspects were correct?

I did a lot of research for 250 Hours and spent many months reading as many primary resources as I could before I started writing. Autobiographies and oral histories on the website were immensely helpful, as were photographs of residential schools and their students.

What was the most difficult part of writing this story? The most rewarding?

The most difficult part of writing this story was reading residential school survivors’ first-hand accounts. Their stories are heartbreaking. I tried to draw on my emotions when I wrote the scene where Jess’s grandmother visits her son’s grave for the first time. I still get teary when I read it.

The most rewarding part is writing the ending. It feels good to set the characters free and know that things have worked out the way they are supposed to.

What is next for you?

My fourth young adult novel, Finding Hope, comes out with Dundurn in March. I have two others completed, one of which is a dystopian sci-fi novel that I wrote with my sister, Nancy Chappell-Pollack. I am currently working on a book about a female DJ, but it’s still in its early stages.


This article originally appeared in The Winnipeg Review.

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