I have introduced The Outside Circle: A Graphic Novel by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings to Canadian Master of Library and Information Science students in my graphic novel courses, my Canadian children literature courses, my courses on First Nations children’s literature and my storytelling courses. To say that I am a fan of this work would possibly be an understatement. I have read it countless times since it has been published, recommended it for high school and public libraries across Canada, and continue to marvel at how much it affects me each time I open the covers to revisit it again.
Winner of the CODE’s 2016 Burt Award for First Nation, Inuit and Métis Literature 2016 and short-listed for the In the Margins Top Fiction Award 2016, this graphic novel is based on the author’s research for her PhD on The In Search of Your Warrior Program, an intervention program developed for federally-incarcerated male Aboriginal offenders with a history of violence. The program blends aspects of traditional Aboriginal spirituality with western approaches to treatment. LaBoucane-Benson examined how providing Indigenous offenders of historical trauma with healing programs built resilience for their families and communities. Instead of publishing her research in academia as was recommended, she decided to have it told in a format that would resonate most with the people she wished to reach. This is a painful story of inter-generational trauma, but also about inter-generational love. It is a story that my First Nations students respond to approvingly. The brothers, Pete and Joey, are not only characters in this story line but are recognizable members of their communities and families. The clear majority of settler students respond also with passion for this story of redemption and hope, citing the amount of knowledge and understanding that they were gifted with in reading of the book. Some, I must admit, have found it pedantic, didactic, and depressing, while at the same time praising the intent and, without fail, the artwork.
The artwork is gritty and realistic, rendered in a muted palette of primary colours book-ended by several vivid red end papers. The cover image is slightly threatening, both in the facial expression of Pete and the blood and bear shadow that encompasses him. This bear is an important character, aiding Pete in becoming grounded in his own identity and his eventual purpose within his own family and the wider community.
Varied panel layouts draw in the reader while, frequently, exploding in the reader’s vision. There is much to contemplate, to absorb, and to reflect while following Pete’s story of anger, gangs, unwanted pregnancies and an unwillingness to accept responsibility for anything or anyone except his younger brother Joey. It is Joey, ultimately, who is the impetus for Pete’s rehabilitation. Spoiler alert: the story has a positive and uplifting conclusion, but, at the same time, some hard truths are brought forward, acknowledged and accepted.
There has been some resistance from my students, among others, in regard to the issue of cultural appropriation in the selection of the artist, a non-aboriginal man. However, I can not praise Kelly Mellings’ research and artistic skills enough in bringing this story alive. Rachel Bryant, in her introductory remarks for the Lorenzo Reading Series, University of New Brunswick (Saint John Campus) addresses this issue eloquently:
There is something beautiful, too, I think, in the fact that the words of this story were produced by a Métis woman, and the images by a Settler Canadian man. At the end of the novel there’s a section of thanks, and Kelly thanks all those who “changed how I think and feel about First nations people. I hope my art has shared what I have learned.” I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this since I first read the novel last week. About the tender interplay between these beautiful images and these powerful words. About how Patti trusted Kelly with this story, and through his artwork, he said, I’m listening. I care about understanding, about getting this right, and I hear you. I see this exchange now in every panel – an Indigenous woman saying, this is the story. It’s an important story. And a Settler man saying, I am listening. Let me show you, through my art, just how hard I am listening.
There is a great satisfaction for this reviewer that the author and illustrator are from central Alberta and the graphic novel recognizes and celebrates our provincial landscapes and communities. There is much to be said for stories to be universal but at the same time, reflective of your own Canadian setting for a change. Recommended to all library collections, outside our borders as well, with interest in the power of oral stories, the ideas of restorative justice and successful alternative programs for the incarcerated.
The Outside Circle: A Graphic Novel
by Patti LaBoucane-Benson
Art by Kelly Mellings
House of Anansi, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: Adult