I first read The Outside Circle a little over a year ago, and decided recently that it was time to revisit this book as it is one of those things that takes some time to really sink in. It is powerfully written, strikingly illustrated, and one of the most thought provoking pieces of modern Canadian literature that I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
Title: This Outside Circle
Author: Patti LaBoucane-Benson
Illustrator: Kelly Mellings
Publication Date: May 2, 2015
Genre: Graphic Novel, YA Fiction, Fiction
Themes: Relationships, Friendship, Coming of Age, Family, Responsibility, First Nations, Generational Trauma, Gangs, Drug Use
Features: Information on the In Search of your Warrior Program
My Rating: 5 / 5
In this important graphic novel, two Aboriginal brothers surrounded by poverty, drug abuse, and gang violence, try to overcome centuries of historic trauma in very different ways to bring about positive change in their lives.
Pete, a young Aboriginal man wrapped up in gang violence, lives with his younger brother, Joey, and his mother who is a heroin addict. One night, Pete and his mother’s boyfriend, Dennis, get into a big fight, which sends Dennis to the morgue and Pete to jail. Initially, Pete keeps up ties to his crew, until a jail brawl forces him to realize the negative influence he has become on Joey, which encourages him to begin a process of rehabilitation that includes traditional Aboriginal healing circles and ceremonies.
Powerful, courageous, and deeply moving, The Outside Circle is drawn from the author’s twenty years of work and research on healing and reconciliation of gang-affiliated or incarcerated Aboriginal men.
If you like beautifully written and impactful graphic novels, if you care at all about social issues, and you have the tiniest spec of curiosity about the impacts of Canadian colonialism and it’s lasting impact through generational wounds YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK. Yes, I just went all caps. And yes, I genuinely think that The Outside Circle Deserves it. It is complicated, powerful, and undeniably insightful in ways that linger long after you have turned the final page.
But let me start with a disclaimer. This graphic novel is not for the faint of heart, and likely not altogether suitable for young children. The social issues touched upon include gang violence, drug use, poverty, incarceration, abuse, and the systematic destruction of families and cultures. It needs to be read, it needs to be discussed, but it is best suited to older teens and adults. And while the subject matter isn’t the lightest, the presentation is such that it is easily approachable by students, scholars, and independent readers alike.
The style and colouration in this book was incredibly impactful and I had to read through several times in order to appreciate the depth of the details and nuances. I enjoyed the ongoing transformation of masks throughout, the tattoo motif, the circle series, and the repetitive use of smoke and fragmentation. I also found the variety of panels and page layouts to be engaging, and I really appreciated the break from tradition western aspects and transitions. The layering of Aboriginal and pop-culture iconography was beautifully done, and the balance created through the imagery made it easily understandable despite my limited understanding certain cultural motifs. The result is a fast paced, engaging, and visually appealing experience.
I was instantly, and irrevocably, wrapped up in Pete’s journey from the very first page. The very meta nature of the opening page of story, showcasing a storyteller, expounded further by the narrator stating ‘let me tell you a story’ had me going daaaamn. I know it doesn’t sound super amazing in a review, but the layers in the book are so very meta, and I like meta – especially when it comes across without feeling at all pretentious! Now add in the integration of key documents on Residential Schools, the Bagot Commission, the 1867 Indian Act, and some painfully startling statics and I couldn’t look away. I cried during the family mapping exercise (if you haven’t figured out by now that I am a crier, where the heck have you been?), and cried even more at Bernice’s funeral and when Ray came to visit Pete in prison.
I am in love with how everything came full circle in the end, and I know that this isn’t always the case in the real world. But it was really was a touching and uplifting way in which to end this story. But more than anything I am in love with how LaBoucane-Benson actively invites readers to become part of the narrative and to become part of the healing process. For anyone unfamiliar with the treatment of First Nations, or any cultural minority impacted by colonial expansion for that matter, this serves as a powerful jumping-in point.
Would I recommend this book? HELL YAAAASSSS! Especially to Canadian junior and senior high school teachers and librarians. The Outside Circle is empowering, impactful, massively educational, and yet ultimately a story of hope. It is incredibly efficient in breaking down stereotypes, helps readers to understand and identify injustices actively operating in society, and humanizes issues that too often reduced to mere statistics. This is an absolute must read!