She Holds Up the Stars
She Holds Up the Stars
Home. The word seeped in and flooded her thoughts – home, home, home. The sounds, the light, the smell, all felt like home.
We’re swirling through the air, brown hands gripping my small wrists so tight, swinging me in a wide circle, light as a feather. “Ninga, Mama!” ‘Round and ‘round we go. I look up and see the treetops, the sky, and my mother’s long dark hair swirling above me. We twirl until we get dizzy and collapse on the ground – on this land – and my mother, Anna, hugs me into her body, her head on mine, and the two of us gasping, laughing.
Misko opened her eyes, and the memory slipped away. She sat up and breathed in the warmth and freshness of the morning light until she didn’t know where she ended and the beauty began – the robin’s egg sky, black tadpoles transforming into a frog’s moss green, the sparse lime-emerald grass not yet burned brown by the summer sun. The blackflies were over, and the mosquitoes were napping, but still there was a humming all about her as if the air crackled with life.
And when she turned her head, she saw him.
He was grazing on the other side of the fence, relaxed, without a drop of fear. His black tail swished.
She moved slowly to stand and leaned on the fence. She hadn’t been up close to a horse like this in years – unsaddled, unharnessed. Unhumaned. The horses she saw in Winnipeg were scary RCMP horses that towered over her with cold-faced police officers in the saddle. The horses’ tails did not swing freely but were braided with ribbons, decorated for a fair, like little girls going to a party.
Misko, 12, has been living with her aunt in Winnipeg for several years, but, after her mother disappeared, she felt compelled to come back to the reserve where she lived with her Kokum. “[H]er dreams, those strange visions, were rooted here and kept tugging at her to come home.” Now that she is back, however, she is faced with the memories of her mother who has been missing for eight years. Misko also remembers other family stories of residential schools and other traumas many of her ancestors had to live through.
While refamiliarizing herself with the area, she stumbles across a rancher’s son breaking a horse on their property on the other side of the fence that separates their property from the reserve. She feels drawn to the horse that she names Mishtadim. Through a mutual interest in Mishtadim, she meets and forms a friendship with the rancher’s son, Thomas. Thomas has been taught by his father that a horse must fear humans and be broken before it can be trained. Thomas is trying very hard to break the horse he calls Brutus because he knows that a horse who can’t be trained has no value and will be put down. Brutus’ time is running out. Misko, on the other hand, forms a bond of mutual respect and affection with the horse. Through this bond, she is able to help with the training process. Will Thomas, Misko, and Mishtadim be successful before Thomas’ dad decides Mishtadim’s time has run out?
She Holds Up the Stars is much more than a story about the relationship between a horse and two young people. Sandra Laronde uses the story to inform the reader about the many historical abuses Indigenous people have endured in Canada. This is a strength and a weakness in the novel. The reader is introduced to some of the ill-treatment Indigenous children suffered at residential schools plus several other topics, including the Sixties Scoop, Missing and Murder Indigenous Women and Girls, as well as the systemic racism Indigenous people face within Canada today. As the story unfolds, the reader also learns that Thomas’ father is a heavy drinker who is emotionally and physically abusive toward his family. It can be a tricky balance to include so many heavy topics in a compelling but short narrative for young people. As a result, there is a lot of information referenced but not fully explained in the novel. It may have been helpful to have a note section for the reader who needed some additional background or emotional support while reading the novel.
The heaviness of the history represented in the story is balanced to a degree by the positive relationships Misko has with her Kokum and other members of her community. Her Kokum teaches her about the many benefits of different plants and encourages her to embrace the spiritual connections she has with the land and the animals. The reader also sees how members of the community care for each other like family.
She Holds Up the Stars is a beautiful story about memory, family, community, and belonging. It is a story of loss, pain, anger, and resilience. As Thomas and Misko both learn what is on the other side of their respective fences, the reader can see the steps the characters are taking on the path of understanding and reconciliation.
Because of the amount of content that could require unpacking, She Holds Up the Stars would be a good novel to read in a book club or literature circle where guided conversations can support student learning.
Jonine Bergen is a teacher librarian in Winnipeg, Manitoba.