Métis author Michelle Porter weaves a beguiling and intricate story out of sparse, interlocking poetic fragments in her fiction debut. Her expertise as a poet and writer of nonfiction is on full display in this genre-blending book, which is deeply rooted in Métis storytelling, matrilineal knowledge and spirituality. It feels more like a collection of stories told by elders gathered around a fire or in a kitchen than a traditional novel. This unique structure creates a surprising momentum, effortlessly drawing readers into many meandering plots.
The story follows several generations of Métis women as they face turning points in their lives. Geneviéve (Gee), in her 80s, has checked herself into rehab for drinking. Gee’s 20-something great-granddaughter Carter, adopted by a white family, meets her grandmother Lucie for the first time when she requests Carter’s assistance in her decision to die by suicide. Carter’s estranged birth mother Allie attempts reconciliation, often through texts. Meanwhile, Gee’s sister Velma has recently died and is trying to make peace with her life from the spirit realm.
However, these women and their complex relationships are not the novel’s sole focus. It also charts the life of a young bison, Dee, whose herd’s ancestral territory is now crisscrossed with fences that force bison to adjust to human constraints. Dee’s chapters are some of the most poignant in the book—she longs for freedom and adventure even as she learns that her survival is bound up with that of her herd.
Chapters from the perspectives of bison grandmothers, Gee’s dogs and the grassland itself add to a rich mix of human and nonhuman voices. In contrast to Carter’s wry and resigned narration, Dee’s voice bursts with unconstrained joy and heartache. Gee is constantly cracking jokes, her sister in the spirit world speaks with a melancholy longing, and the texts from Carter’s mother are clipped and full of simmering regret and pain.
A Grandmother Begins the Story is a beautiful meditation on the interconnectedness of spirit, land and family. It’s about what gets passed down from mothers to daughters and what doesn’t. It’s about the stories that persist through generations—sometimes hidden, but always present—and what happens when those stories break open into new shapes.