BookPage Top Pick in Nonfiction, February 2018
This stunning, poetic memoir from Terese Marie Mailhot burns like hot coal. I read it in a single feverish session, completely absorbed and transported by Mailhot’s powerful and original voice. Mailhot’s story—which extends from an impoverished childhood on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia through foster care, teenage motherhood and mental illness—could seem a painful litany of misfortune were it not for the transformative alchemy of her art.
Sherman Alexie, in his introduction to this memoir, calls Heart Berries “an Iliad for the indigenous,” and recognizes Mailhot as a striking new voice in First Nation writing. The strength of her writing comes from Mailhot’s fearless embrace of emotional darkness and in her depiction of the psychic cost of living in a white man’s world. For example, after Mailhot’s mother has an intense epistolary love affair with convicted murderer Salvador Agron, her words and memories are used by the musician Paul Simon for his musical The Capeman, in which her character is reduced to an “Indian hippie chick.” Mailhot herself falls in precipitous love with her writing teacher, a passion that initially lands her in a mental ward.
Although diagnosed with bipolar II, post-traumatic stress disorder and an eating disorder, Mailhot links her illness to something she calls “Indian sick,” which is as historical as it is individual. There is “something feminine and ancestral” in her illness, which requires an acknowledgment of the generational trauma of First Nation people. Storytelling, Mailhot feels, is a first step toward healing both the individual and her people.
Situating her physical and psychic pain in context with a multigenerational focus, Mailhot crafts an intensely moving story about mothers and what they pass down to their children.