A Grandmother Begins the Story   

By Michelle Porter

Penguin Random House
May 2023, $34.95
Reviewed by Eva Crocker

Michelle Porter’s A Grandmother Begins the Story is a collection of short vignettes told from the perspective of five generations of Métis women (some of whom share their stories from beyond the grave), three generations of bison, a couple of spunky dogs, a grassland, and an old volvo named Bets. Each of these voices offer up brief bursts (sometimes a vignette is just a paragraph, or a text message exchange) of the many intersecting storylines that make up this nuanced exploration of the tension between danger and desire, care and control, familial bonds and self-actualization.

Many of Porter’s characters are dealing with intergenerational trauma caused by the residential school system and colonialism more broadly. She is especially concerned with the ways that colonialism infiltrates and attempts to destroy parent-child relationships. At one point Carter, a young mother and adoptee who is struggling to maintain a relationship with her own son as she establishes a new relationship with her biological mother, asks her birth mother via text why she was given up for adoption when so many First Nations and Métis parents fight to recover children who were stolen from them. Her mother responds “That’s what they do in the end. They get us to do it all to ourselves so they don’t have to bother doing it”. It is partly this visceral honesty that allows Carter to eventually connect with her birth family in a meaningful way. Throughout the novel characters find ways back to each other by sharing their stories.  

Porter’s characters offer profound observations about familial bonds in clear, crisp prose. Each passage in the novel is titled in a way that identifies the focalizer and subject matter of the scene, these titles suggest that this chorus of distinctive storytellers is being orchestrated by a narrator who is carefully doling out small chunks of story in the order we need to hear them. This structure creates a mild sense of dreamlike disorientation in the opening of the novel as the reader puzzles together who each of the characters are and how their stories are intertwined. The lazer sharp precision of the language makes it a pleasure to submit to the poetry of the prose and trust you will find your footing in a swirl of stories. As we get to know the characters, skipping back and forth between succinct installments of each of their stories creates a galloping momentum that makes it increasingly difficult to put this book down. 

About a hundred pages into the novel, we are introduced to a new character, a bison grandmother named Solin. Solin’s first scene takes place during a blizzard, older bison have encircled the calves to keep them safe from the storm and Solin senses that telling a story will help calm the children. She says, “It was time for a story.

Different ways to tell a story. Some tellers make a noise to announce the coming of the story or get someone else to call everyone’s attention. Some wait for people to gather around, for the quiet to settle. Others just begin. They don’t wait for everyone to lean in — that’ll happen soon enough. They don’t speak loudly or even want everyone to hear. Those that hear are the ones the story was meant for. Me, I’m that last kind. 

I got started in the middle of the story.” 

Porter is also the type of storyteller who is uncompromising in her commitment to telling the story in exactly the way it needs to be told.

Eva Crocker is a freelance editor and author. Her debut novel All I Ask won the 2020 BMO Winterset Award. Her short story collection Barreling Forwardwas shortlisted for Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Emerging LGBTQS2 Writers and the NLCU Fresh Fish Award for Emerging Writers. It won the Alistair MacLeod Award for Short Fiction and the CAA Emerging Author’s Award, and was a National Post Best Book. Her new novel Back in the Land of the Living was published by House of Anansi Press in August 2023. She is completing a PhD in the Interdisciplinary Humanities department at Concordia University, where she is studying visual art as a resistance to resource extraction.