Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resistance is the first novel of Indigenous authour Monique Gray-Smith and it’s something everyone should read! Keep reading for a detailed review.
I ultimately cannot review Tilly without discussing my own personal connection to it and the issues it combats. Therefore this is going to be a review of the book itself as well as a bit of a story about how I came to read and connect with this book.
In short, this book is the story of an Indigenous girl who grows up in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s. Although we only get to see small snippets of Tilly’s life Gray-Smith writes with such emotion and detail that you really feel like you know Tilly on a personal level. Throughout the story, Tilly confronts many issues that are universal and many more that are specific to Indigenous peoples. The novel discusses grief, alcoholism, racism, and the impact of residential schools and the 60s scoop, and does it all in relatable and easily understood ways. If it is not clear already, I recommend that everyone read this book. However, that recommendation is especially so if you are an Indigenous woman, know an Indigenous woman or are interested in learning more about the experiences of Indigenous people.
How I Came to Own Tilly
In 2014 I was 17 years old and only just becoming interested in my own heritage and culture. Lucky for me, I was able to attend Gathering Our Voices for the second time that year. Gathering Our Voices is a conference for Indigenous youth which seeks to promote resilience, teach leadership, and ultimately help Indigenous youth network with one another. That year the conference was held in Prince George.
On the plane on the way to the conference, I was sat beside a woman, who quickly introduced herself to me. That is where I met Monique. She told me who she was, that she was attending the conference to host a workshop, and of course, she asked about me.
At that time in my life (and even sometimes still) I struggled with my identity as an Indigenous person. Mostly I struggled with reconciling my European heritage with my Indigenous heritage and figuring out what that meant. However, meeting Monique really changed my point of view. Her confidence in her own heritage and the ease with which she walks in the world really changed how I perceived myself.
I did not get to choose which workshops I attended at that conference but as luck would have it I was placed in her workshop. During which she talked about the importance of Indigenous youth writing our own stories and she gave away and signed copies of her book.
How I Came to Read Tilly
Although I owned the book since that conference in 2014 I never read it until the Fall of 2017. One of my assignments that semester was to review a piece of media that featured or was made by, Indigenous women. Since I already owned the book I decided simply for convenience that I would review it.
I finally read Tilly. I had never seen my life, my thoughts, and my experiences so accurately reflected in another character before reading this book. It felt like Monique had written about my life, and that every reaction Tilly had was what I would have done in her exact situation. As powerful as my connection to this character was, there was only one part of the book that brought me to tears.
In the book, as Tilly ages, she ends up on a plane sitting next to a character called Bay Street Dan. As Tilly sits with him on this plane they strike up a conversation. Through that conversation, Tilly learns about Dan’s life and his experiences as an Indigenous person trying to reconnect with family that has been separated by Canadian institutions. In sharing her own story and seeing the similarities, Tilly draws new conclusions about her own life and leaves with the resolve and motivation to continue trying to connect to her culture.
Holy Smokes! I started crying as I read that part. Not only was this character a nearly perfect representation of myself and my experiences but she was the Bay Street Dan of my life. Perhaps writing this character encouraged her to talk to me that day, or maybe this is something she has always done. Either way, I cannot minimize the impact that meeting her and reading her had on her life.
That day I worked up the courage to send her an e-mail. I essentially wrote what I wrote here and never thought she would get back to me. However, she did! Her response was lovely, humble and she shared wise words with me. I do not know if she will ever read this, but I do want to thank her again for being my Bay Street Dan when I needed one.