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Non-fiction account reads like a novel


Suzanne Methot







Starlight Tour: The Last, Lonely Night of Neil Stonechild
By Susanne Reber and Robert Renaud
Random House Canada,
427 pages, $35 (hc)

On Nov. 29, 1990, Cree teenager Neil Stonechild was found frozen to death in a field in an industrial area outside Saskatoon. Fourteen years later, a public inquiry would find clear evidence that Saskatoon police had Stonechild in custody before his death, and that the officers in question had been deceptive about their involvement. Starlight Tour covers the ground in between, painting a shocking picture of police incompetence, citizen and media indifference, and a cover up at the highest levels.

Authors Susanne Reber and Robert Renaud, both investigative journalists for the CBC, researched the Stonechild case for three years. They conducted exhaustive interviews with the Stonechild family, their legal team, and other people involved in the case, and they accessed legal evidence, confidential documents, and photos used in the inquiry. The result is a rock-solid factual examination of Stonechild's life and death, the freezing deaths of five other Native men, the half-hearted investigation conducted by the Saskatoon Police Service, the subsequent RCMP investigation, the inquests into several of the deaths, the trial of the officers involved in the unlawful confinement of one Native man, the inquiry, and the dismissal of the officers who had contact with Stonechild on the night of his death.

But don't let that scare you away from Starlight Tour. Although it presents the facts, it is not a dry, journalistic examination of events. The authors create and maintain a novel-like rhythm and tone, primarily through the use of a character-centred storytelling technique.

Reber and Renaud recreate entire conversations, writing dialogue as if they had been there. They write about inner thoughts as if they were inside the heads of the people involved. This kind of creative non-fiction-first used by Truman Capote in his groundbreaking book In Cold Blood-allows readers to enter the story and gain intimacy with the proceedings. The people in the story become much more than mere names on a page.

This turns out to be a vital part of Starlight Tour's success. The story is told with an eye to the emotions and individual tics of the personalities involved, as opposed to a dry recount of official transcripts. Several principal players in the Stonechild affair-especially lawyer Don Worme and principal witness Jason Roy-become almost like characters in a novel. At one point, the authors write about how the weather on a particular day during the inquiry made Stonechild's mother's "temples ache." This seemingly small detail-and others like it-give readers a sense of the humanity of the people involved, a humanity that would not be present in a run-of-the-mill non-fiction book.
Unfortunately, creative non-fiction can also be problematic: in a few scenes, especially one written from Roy's point of view and one written from a cop's point of view-where the "characters" inner thoughts seem to veer from accepted fact-readers might wonder if what they're reading is fact or just an attempt by the authors to avoid showing bias.

Unlike many non-fiction books, where the facts pile up into a big, blurry mess, Starlight Tour is a masterpiece of pacing and structure. Especially effective are the compelling prologues to each of the four sections of the book.

The prologues-two recreated events in flashback and two document reproductions-are brilliant setups that inform the Stonechild story even though they are connected only peripherally to it.

The book has many devastating moments. The authors recreate Stonechild's death. There is no warning when readers turn the page and are confronted with an autopsy photo of Stonechild's battered, frozen face. And then there is Roy, who was with Stonechild on the night of his death, and who has always maintained that he last saw Stonechild in the back of a police cruiser, handcuffed, bloody, and screaming that the police were going to kill him. He suffered years of guilt for not helping his friend that night. (He has also endured police surveillance and intimidation, and was moved to another town and placed under RCMP protection as a result.)
In the end, though, Starlight Tour is an uplifting book. The dignity of Stonechild's mother, Stella Bignell, and the dedication of the Stonechild family as they sought the truth is simply inspiring. Bignell's presence in the book uncovers a second theme quite apart from her son's death: How women are the glue holding Native families together.

The book isn't only about the Stonechild story. Darrell Night was taken on a "starlight tour" and dumped on the outskirts of Saskatoon in 2000. He survived his ordeal, and he was brave enough to tell his story and speak truth to power. Without him, the true circumstances of Stonechild's death would never have been uncovered.

The police officers who dropped Night off were convicted of unlawful confinement and kicked off the force. Although the officers who had contact with Stonechild were also kicked off the force, no charges have ever been laid in Stonechild's death. Starlight Tour speaks its own truth to power by presenting the full story for Canadians to read.