SPG Book Reviews - Outcasts of River Falls

Reviewed by: Sandy Bonny

In her third novel for young adult readers, sequel to the award-winning Belle of Batoche, Alberta-based Métis writer, historian, and literacy advocate Jacqueline Guest combines her passions, rewarding readers with a fast-paced coming-of-age adventure.

Her spirited teenage protagonist, Kathryn, has grown up in the care of a father who 'passed', hiding his Métis heritage in order to integrate with English society in Ontario. Suddenly orphaned and barred by financial circumstances from the boarding school where she has spent her happiest years, Kathryn is horrified to discover that the aunt into who's care she has been entrusted is not, as her father's stories had lead her to expect, a wealthy ranch heiress, but rather a half-breed spinster marooned in Alberta without title to so much as the land beneath her 'shack.'

Landless and excluded from both the Constitution and Indian Act, the Métis community built in the 'ditches' adjacent to River Falls has been forced into self-sufficiency. They supply their own medical care with expertise that is sought after by local settlers, school their children at home, and draw much of their living from the land.

Overcoming her initial despair, Kathryn comes to admire the strength of this outcast community, especially when her friend's come together to frame a bedroom for her in the corner of her aunt's main room. Mixing paste and plaster from riverbank clay, and cooking for the neighbours from scratch, Kathryn finds herself quickly exhausted, and marvels at her autn's perseverance. What a surprise to learn that these hard-working people are also skilled dancers and musicians--eager to throw even more energy into a welcome dance for a girl they've barely come to know.

Things are looking up, but when Kathryn applies to sschool in nearby River Falls, eager to pursue her dream of studying law, she learns that the Métis are not welcomed with the same hospitality they extend to outsiders. Though her aunt Belle is respected as a healer she is expected to step aside on the wooden boardwalks when they encounter the men of the town. More ominously, an RCMP officer has begun taking advantage of the invisibility of Métis women, harassing them as easy targets who he does not expect to be defended.

But the Road Allowance community is in fact championed, by a mysterious rider in black who flashes an ivory hilt knife! And, just as Kathryn resign herself to advancing her education through books, she is distracted by the discovery that her aunt Belle is, in fact, signaling to this 'Métis Robin Hood,' perhaps to both of their peril. It is a secret she is tempted to share with two new friends--JP, her Road Allowance minstrel, and Wade, a dashing newcomer who courts Kathryn along the bank of the river that leads into town. 

Guest's narrative draws on the romantic sagas that Kathryn treasures, setting gritty reality against idealism and grounding youthful fantasy in ambition and courage. As Kathryn determines, "...life was not a fairy tale; it was hard work and took a special kind of courage to stand up and do the right thing."

Elements of the story may seem fantastic, but many details are drawn from archival records and oral histories. Love, political intrigue, and authentic details of turn of the century Métis life and Canadian politics make the 'Outcasts of River Falls' an engaging and inspiring read. It will appeal especially to younger teens who, like Kathryn, are learning to navigate legacies of gender, race and class.

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