2013 Review: Tilly, A Story of Hope and Resilience

Tilly, A Story of Hope and Resilience cover

Tilly, A Story of Hope and Resilience
Author: Monique Gray Smith
Published by Sono Nis Press
Review by Shari Narine

It’s hard not to pull for Tilly. After all, who doesn’t want someone who becomes attached to alcohol when she’s in Grade 7 to conquer her demons?  But while Tilly, A Story of Hope and Resilience, does a remarkable job of entwining cultural teachings with Tilly’s passage from alcohol-dependency to alcohol-freedom, it does little to help the reader understand Tilly.

Tilly is a loosely-based autobiography of Monique Gray Smith. It is story-telling in its fullest, chronologically following main character Tilly’s life from the racist confrontation with a stranger on the sidewalk in Kelowna in 1974 to the death of her namesake grandmother when Tilly starts junior high and ending with Tilly’s marriage in a loving, wholesome relationship, and the birth of twins.

But it doesn’t delve into the character. It only provides a cursory examination.

I want to know why Tilly does what she does. I want to know why Tilly is finally ready to attend AA. I want to know why Tilly has the strength to not only walk away from the love of her life but to stay sober. I want to know why Tilly leaves her job as a nurse to be a helper for healing workshops. I want to know why Tilly becomes an alcoholic but her younger sister Marie doesn’t. I want to know Tilly. And I don’t.

Gray Smith does an admirable job in relating the Lakota teachings of Tilly’s grandmother; the Ojibway ways of Bea, the woman at the Native Friendship Centre, who counsels Tilly; the Sunrise ceremony and smudging at the treatment centre Tilly enters for the full six weeks. Gray Smith even touches on residential schools, Indian hospitals, Harper’s apology, and the ‘60s scoop.

But she also only touches on Tilly’s life.

At the midway point of the novel, Tilly writes, “I didn’t really know what made me happy. I’d become far removed from ‘me.’”
The problem is, the reader doesn’t know who Tilly was or is or why she becomes who she becomes.

Central to Tilly’s story seems to be her discovery of her culture. She writes that her counsellor Bea “understood the importance of culture in recovery.” Indeed, the treatment centre that Tilly eventually attends is marked by a sign stating “Culture is Treatment.”

There are numerous studies that recognize this statement as truth. Gray Smith devotes pages to talking about Tilly’s time in the treatment centre, what she learns, how she sticks out the full six weeks although for the first time ever she celebrates her birthday without her family. And though her roommate is a grandmother who befriends her, provides insight and guidance, the reader never learns how Tilly feels about everything.
Yes, she gets up early in the morning; yes, she likes to spend time by the river where it’s quiet; yes, she participates in the ceremonies. But what does this all mean to her? What does it change in her?

She states, “I quickly realized how powerful it was to greet the day in a sacred way, from a grounded place and a place of thankfulness.”

But what does that mean for Tilly? How does she take this and use it when she learns that the man she loves has betrayed her with lies? After this devastation, Tilly stays strong, never goes back to drinking. I want to know why. How did what she learn in the treatment centre give her this strength? How was she able to hold on now?

Gray Smith does an excellent job describing and providing an understanding of First Nations cultural teachings and traditions – she even includes a glossary at the end of the novel – but it leaves me still wanting to know the heart and soul of Tilly.