When most people think of Yukon stories, images of a frost-gripped land sparkling in poetry often spring to mind.
But Carcross author Eleanor Millard has lived a less storybook life more common to the realities of today’s world North of 60.
Her latest novel, Summer Snow, tells the story of a young woman from Outside struggling to raise an adopted First Nation daughter afflicted with a perplexing, frustrating and as-yet-unknown disorder.
It’s a brutally honest fictionalized account of Millard’s own experiences raising her own adopted daughter - Jessica - and learning firsthand how difficult living with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder can be.
“It was pretty sad, in some points,” Millard says, of the writing.
“But it’s not the first time I’ve written about the FASD experience I’ve had. There’s a chapter about Jessica in Journey’s Outside and In (a previously-published memoir). In the long run it’s good. It sort of puts it into perspective. It’s cathartic,” she says.
When the novel’s protagonist, Amanda Corelli, arrives in Carcross in the late 1970s, the acronym FASD had never been spoken before, let alone its impact on Canada’s indigenous communities fully understood.
Corelli is young, adventurous and idealistic, excited to be a new teacher in the community but also learning the cultural traditions of the Tlingit people. She is captivated by Tracy, a nine-year-old from Ross River, whom she ultimately adopts.
But as Tracy grows the difficulties with her become clearer, and Corelli struggles to be the best mother she can to an increasingly erratic, often emotional and angry daughter.
“Tracy doesn’t know who she is. Her name changes because when a social worker picked her up in Ross River, she wouldn’t speak for weeks. That’s actually quite common, so they just gave her a name. When Amanda goes back to Ross River to find out about Tracy’s family, she finds out that she used to have a different name,” Millard said.
Like many authors, Millard has a complicated relationship with some of her characters, not the least of which is with Tracy.
“It’s so wrapped up in my own daughter, that it’s just continuing the same. I really count it as my life’s achievement that I’m still in touch with my family and my daughter and grandchildren. That took a lot of work.
“I’m not too concerned with Jessica learning about it. As she gets older, she does less and less reading, and she likes the idea that she has her picture in a book. She doesn’t think too deeply about it.
“But my youngest grandchild does, and that’s really important. They need to be able to discuss it and have acceptance about it,” Millard said.
“(Dealing with FASD) is a lifelong grieving period, and the child doesn’t die, they just keeping on doing these crazy things. There’s no finish to it. You can’t just bury it,” Millard said.
Writing this story helped Millard in her continual coming to terms with her family’s history.
“You make terrible mistakes, awful mistakes. You get angry, you get depressed, you get very emotional about it. And I’ve been able to not remove myself from it, I guess, as much as accept it,” she said.
On writing about one of darker sides of the Yukon, Millard says she’s been able to spark an important discussion about the challenges of FASD, even if it was at first a little intimidating for her.
“I was over in Haines in Alaska for Thanksgiving at a writers’ workshop, and I did a reading out of Summer Snow, and all the conversation afterwards was about my own experience with FASD. I was really startled by that. I was expecting it to more focus on the issue generally. I had to decide whether this is what I really wanted, and I decided it is,” she said.
FASD is widespread in the North, but still largely unquantified. The Yukon government recently announced it is undertaking a study to examine the prevalence of the disorder within the Yukon prison population. Anecdotally it’s alarmingly high, but firm numbers have never been tabulated.
Millard said even though so much is still unknown about the illness, when she first arrived in the Yukon in 1965, “you couldn’t find a sober person, practically.”
But with awareness, that is changing.
“The First Nations now are a greater percentage of abstainers, because of the impact that it’s had on them and their families. I really think self-government and land claims are helping give people a sense of who they are,” she said.
Ultimately, Millard hopes that by telling her story, Yukoners and Canadians in general will have a greater understanding of the toll FASD takes, not just on those afflicted with the condition, but on their families and caregivers as well.
“And hopefully that means people will put pressure on the government to respond to people with FASD. There are adults coming out of our system that are in jail, and shouldn’t be. We know what needs to be done, so do it. But you know, they’re still seen as expendable people,” she says.
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