Always Brave, Sometimes Kind by Katie Bickell is a poignant collection of interconnected snapshots of northern Alberta life. It sucks the reader into a world both familiar and alien, depending on the reader’s lived experience.
At a virtual author interview through the Rotary Club of Slave Lake Public Library, Bickell said that the book was inspired by growing up in Slave Lake.
While Slave Lake is never mentioned by name, there are recognizable elements of northern Alberta throughout.
On a side note: the acknowledgement reads like a who’s who of Slave Lake society.
The story of Jude, an adopted Indigenous boy, is the thread that connects the stories in the novel together. While the characters might never learn it, they are all connected.
The novel spans Albertan history from the 1990s to present day, with a couple of detours into the 1970s. Much of it happens in northern Alberta or Edmonton.
While Bickell must have done a great deal of research to write the book, it doesn’t feel like it. The characters ring true. Very few of the them are what people might call nice, but they are believable, brave, and on occasion kind.
The novel opens with a prologue (which acts like a first chapter). It is set in 1994 from the point of view of Rhanji, a doctor in Edmonton. Ever since he immigrated to Canada from India in the 1970s, he’s seen healthy Indigenous children taken from their families who fail to thrive in foster care. This breaks his heart, but his motto is ‘I do not know this child. This child is not mine.’
His single social worker daughter has adopted an abandoned Indigenous boy. Rhanji applies the same motto. The baby was abandoned at the hospital by a foster care runaway. She left a note: ‘To do: Be brave Be kind.’
At the time of the prologue, Rhanji’s adopted grandson has been kidnapped. While worried about his grandson, Rhanji is also conflicted and must continue his work as a doctor. Characters within this first chapter pop up throughout the story. Everyone from the homeless guy sleeping in the lobby to the foster girl dumped off at the hospital to the nurse behind the front desk find their way into other parts of the story.
The book was addictive, enjoyable and emotionally draining all rolled into one. Not a light book in any emotional sense, but an easy read and worth the emotional turmoil.
The only question this reader has is why the first and the last chapters are called a prologue and an epilogue, as they read like chapters, although out of chronological order.
The answer at the author reading was that the book was originally in chronological order, but to make the story thread about Jude instead of another character, these were shifted.