Where I Belong
by Tara White
(Tradewind Books, 2014 (Canada)/2015 (US & UK))
Sixteen-year-old Carrie tells her story of what happened in the summer of 1990, when she rebels against her strict adoptive parents, falls in love, and meets her Mohawk birth family for the first time. Set against the Oka uprising in Quebec, Canada, middle-grade/YA novel Where I Belong is not only a coming-of-age story but offers some insight into events twenty-five years ago, when Mohawk residents of Kahnawake occupied the Mercier Bridge on a major artery between Montreal and the US, in solidarity with protests in nearby Oka against the proposed development of Mohawk land, including a burial site.
As a first-person account, readers can see how Carrie develops as a person: initially, characterisation, through her observation, tends to be very flat and superficial, but by the end Carrie’s increased maturity is reflected in her engagement with her roots and her renewed relationship with her adoptive parents. Even so, author Tara White’s treatment of Carrie’s adoptive parents and the handling of how the social worker brings about her meeting with Harold, her birth father, are areas of Where I Belong that would have benefited from deeper discourse. On the one hand, I would have liked this book to have been longer; on the other, the book is short enough to read quite quickly and then reread with the knowledge of hindsight. This makes for increased awareness of just how far Carrie comes in her personal development as her week’s stay with her Mohawk family at their home in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory becomes a prolonged summer behind the blockade.
There are moments of astute observation throughout the book that will make readers sit up and take notice, such as Carrie’s trip to the mall with her grandmother, when she is subject to racial abuse from a complete stranger. She has always recognised that, ‘as the only black-haired, dark skinned girl in town,’ she looks different to other people in her small hometown of McDonald Corners in Ontario, but her newfound roots among people that look like her are not yet solid enough to provide her with the strength to stand up to such abuse:
‘Gramma glared back at him […] “Keep your head up, Carrie. Be proud of who you are.”
Who am I? I don’t even know. This would never happen to me back home.‘
Twin sister Jessica’s complex response to Carrie’s arrival adds depth to the storyline. Readers glean some aspects of Mohawk culture as Gramma seeks to make up for all that Carrie has missed in her first fifteen years. There is snappy dialogue between Carrie and her friend Dana, who has no problem in assisting Carrie to rebel against her (adoptive) parents and regards her being caught up in dangerous political turmoil as a big adventure. This contrasts with Tommy, Carrie’s new boyfriend, who encourages her to find out who she is and, as a Mohawk, is deeply engaged with events as they unfold at the Mercier Bridge blockade. The descriptions of the blockade and the highly volatile racial tensions surrounding it make for compelling reading, and the cryptic dreams that punctuate Carrie’s personal journey propel her and the reader towards the dénouement, when their significance and influence on Carrie’s course of action finally become clear.
Where I Belong is a good read to foster understanding of Mowhawk culture and concerns, and will raise lots of questions in readers about their own sense of self and where they belong. It also raises awareness among a new generation of an important episode in Canada’s recent history.