A Cree Coming of Age

  • Winner Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction (2018)
  • Short-listed Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award (BC Book Prize) (2019)
  • Short-listed RBC Taylor Prize (2019)
  • Short-listed City of Victoria Butler Book Prize (2019)
  • Short-listed George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature
  • Starred Kirkus Review [read review →]

Growing up in the tiny village of Smith, Alberta, Darrel J. McLeod was surrounded by his Cree family’s history. In shifting and unpredictable stories, his mother, Bertha, shared narratives of their culture, their family and the cruelty that she and her sisters endured in residential school. McLeod was comforted by her presence and that of his many siblings and cousins, the smells of moose stew and wild peppermint tea, and his deep love of the landscape. Bertha taught him to be fiercely proud of his heritage and to listen to the birds that would return to watch over and guide him at key junctures of his life.

However, in a spiral of events, Darrel’s mother turned wild and unstable, and their home life became chaotic. Sweet and innocent by nature, Darrel struggled to maintain his grades and pursue an interest in music while changing homes many times, witnessing violence, caring for his younger siblings and suffering abuse at the hands of his surrogate father. Meanwhile, his sibling’s gender transition provoked Darrel to deeply question his own sexual identity.

The fractured narrative of Mamaskatch mirrors Bertha’s attempts to reckon with the trauma and abuse she faced in her own life, and captures an intensely moving portrait of a family of strong personalities, deep ties and the shared history that both binds and haunts them.

Beautifully written, honest and thought-provoking, Mamaskatch—named for the Cree word used as a response to dreams shared—is ultimately an uplifting account of overcoming personal and societal obstacles. In spite of the traumas of Darrel’s childhood, deep and mysterious forces handed down by his mother helped him survive and thrive: her love and strength stayed with him to build the foundation of what would come to be a very fulfilling and adventurous life.

Reviews of Mamaskatch

Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age dares to immerse readers in provocative contemporary issues including gender fluidity, familial violence, and transcultural hybridity. A fast-moving, intimate memoir of dreams and nightmares—lyrical and gritty, raw and vulnerable, told without pity, but with phoenix-like strength.”

—Canada Council for the Arts Peer Assessment Committee

“Darrel McLeod’s Mamaskatch is a heart-wrenching mîwâsin memoir full of vignettes that are so intricately woven that they guide you through with grace, sâkihiwêwin, humour, and maskihkîy. This is a narrative built through continuums that detail the lives of the McLeod family through their queer travails, trans realities, bannock and stew conversations, and a plethora of intergenerational traumas and triumphs. I can feel the warm embrace of the Three Sisters wrapping around me as I read this, that heart-drum beat resounding beneath its literary cadences, the frigidity of the Athabasca kissing my heels, and a narrator who teaches me from his very first passage in this novel that a good story is a medicine song that re-members and re-animates, in true nehiyawewin fashion, those who have paved the way for us and those who for whom we pave.  Ay-hay, Darrel, for this lovely work that lulls me back into those old-fashioned country songs that nearly every prairie kokôm raised us on. Mâmaskâc!”

—Joshua Whitehead, author of Full-Metal Indigiqueer and Jonny Appleseed

“Honestly stunning. McLeod’s clear writing lays bare his complicated ties to his family, his lovers and his country in a memoir that moved and haunted me. If you loved Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, you will love Mamaskatch.”

—Eden Robinson, author of Son of a Trickster and Monkey Beach

“Reading the text was like diving into the eternity of dreams and being paralyzed by a nightmare. However, there is sunrise. Told candidly and with heartbreaking honesty, McLeod’s memoir shows how survival beckoned and he held on to the spirit of his ancestors—the love that no one can ever sever. He lives for all of us.”

—Louise Bernice Halfe, author of Burning in this Midnight Dream

“A compelling read that shows the heartbreaking results of imposed oppression. Darrel has identity problems of many kinds and the result is a life full of chaos. The gradual climb out of that dark place is touching.”

—Bev Sellars, former councillor and chief of the Xat’sull First Nation and author of Price Paid: The Fight for First Nations Survival and They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School

“Mamaskatch is a profound and tender love song, an elegy to a wounded family, and an unsparing, exquisitely moving chronicle of growing up “Nehiyaw” (Cree). Like the birdsong his mother taught him to understand, McLeod’s voice is magical; it will lift and carry you through bone-breaking grief with grit, optimism and wry, life-saving humour. You will not leave this book unchanged.”

—Denise Ryan, journalist, Vancouver Sun

“McLeod has written a powerful, unflinching work of non-fiction, one that isn’t afraid to leave itself raw and unfinished, nodding to the stories that are yet to come…. The figures McLeod writes about in Mamaskatch shimmer in the best kind of way…Nothing, however appears as brightly or as darkly as Bertha. The parts of the book written from her perspective pulse with their own kind of intensity…Mamaskatch embodies the recognition of the way stories can help to pull one through the darkest moments.”

—Amanda Leduc, Quill & Quire

“…In a time when an increased interest in reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents of Canada is a goal of the national government (or at least cited as such, with varying degrees of sincerity), McLeod’s memoir is a valuable resource for us all…. Anyone who cares about reconciliation and enjoys powerful prose narrative will be glad to have read this important book.”

—Tom Sandborn, Vancouver Sun

“A torturously-beautiful memoir of growing up in a world of violence and family trauma. McLeod’s writing is lyrical and offers a powerful examination of contemporary issues, from sexual self-identification to the scars of residential school to the contemporary search for reconciliation. ‘Mamaskatch’ means ‘shared dream’ in Cree, and while there are unavoidable nightmares along the journey, there are also dreams of hope, at times of exquisite beauty and renewed pride.”

—RBC Taylor Prize Jury Panel: Camilla Gibb, Roy MacGregor, Beverley McLachlin

“…Lyrically written and linked by family, compassion, forgiveness, and hope, Mamaskatch sings out as a modern-day celebration of healing.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“It takes a lot of heart, soul and skill, to create a memoir that is impossible to put down. It takes something yet more mysterious and commanding—a blend of courage, honesty and integrity—to make that memoir impossible to forget. Such a memoir is Darrel J. McLeod’s Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age.…this is the way he (McLeod) came to earth, with a generous heart and an artist’s questing soul. All families should be lucky enough, to be remembered in this comprehensive and forgiving way.”

—Marjorie Simmons, The Antigonish Review