Last Updated on 01/30/2023 by Sophia
Stolen life: Book Review.
The novel by Yvonne Johnson “Stolen Life” is a story that fills the gap between oral
culture and written narrative. The story deploys methodology of biography, memoir and
autography in describing what she goes through. The author explains her experience of
childhood, teenage and adult sexual abuse. Johnson states that “My first attack happened when I
was between two to three years… and would be in my later years as well." (338) The cleft palate
that impaired Johnson made it hard for her to tell anyone including her mother as she could not
speak well and the other people could not understand her (3). Johnson states that "mom could
never understand me…"The other reasons as to why Johnson did not tell anyone was age and the
traumatic effect the abuse caused her.
At the time she could not explain to anyone what she was experiencing and she stated
that "At that age, I had nothing to compare…I registered what happened to me as pain, hate,
bitterness…” The sentence, "I had no story," is important despite the appearance as if a child
cannot express herself at the age of two and three years. The phase was an expression of how
Johnson went through arrest, trial and imprisonment for killing a man how abused her. Johnson’s
life was such a mess that she states that, “death was easier or less painful at some times…” (5)
"Stole life" story is based on a cultural-based view of how women are violated by men who
include their fathers, brothers, men in uniform, acquaintances, and strangers (3). She narrates
about her trauma, retold and recovered life when she was recovering in prison walls after been
charged and sentenced to twenty-five years for the first-degree murder.
The plot of the novel is in the prisons of Canada. Moreover, having been written in
prison, the story gives what Johnson went through in the Canadian criminal justice system.
Johnson’s experience in Kingston’s Prison for Women and the newly opened Okimaw Ohci
Healing Lodge does not only show the suffering that prisons undergo but also the injustices
between the whole process of arrest, trial, sentencing and lastly incarceration.
The collaborative narration between Yvonne Johnson and Rudy Wiebe establishes
engagement and dialogue in writing that results in metaphors. “Stolen Life” also, neglects the
discussion on how the issue of gender impacted collaboration between Yvonne and Rudy.
Therefore, the story develops a setback and does not incorporate cultural heritage and gender.
Besides, "Stolen Life” is a true reflection of the introduction of the unsocial sociability concept
in writing. Public utterance should be accompanied by consequences to ensure that there is
regulation of what authors write. Some utterances violate the social code of writing, for example,
Rudy's utterance that, "to begin a story, someone in some way must break the particular
silence…” is a great risk. The use of such a sentence in opening a chapter indicates that the life
of Yvonne Johnson is dominated by violation which is normalized and the socially acceptable
codes never exist.
The collaboration between Yvonne and Rudy started with a letter that was sent to by
Yvonne to Rudy. The letter was written when Johnson was in Kingston's Prison for Women and
she introduced herself as great-grandchild daughter of the Plains Cree. In the letter, Yvonne
continues to narrate the story of her family's experience with the dispossession and
disempowerment that resulted in the imprisonment of the Big Bear in 1885. The knowledge of
the history of Yvonne's family by Rudy, not to mention his extensive writing about the ancestors
of Yvonne facilitates her to request assistance from him. Johnson requested for the assistance for
spread information and stated that “Please help me share what you know… I wish to clear his
name… as I try to find my lost family…”
According to the counselor, Johnson is not aware of the importance of her story. In
contrast, Johnson is clear about her story's impact. The author intends to make known to the
world the challenges that the women go through. Johnson's intentions are evident with the letter
she wrote requesting assistance from Rudy.
The publication of “Stolen Life” also introduces the theme of trust and honesty. The
counselor in the women prison encourages Johnson to write although she states that, “she’s not
capable of writing… there’s never been such a story out of P4W…” (40) The theme of honesty
and trust is expressed where the counselor insists that it only Rudy who should work with
Johnson. Rudy asks, “Isn’t there someone else who should work with her, a woman, a Native
writer?” The counselor tells Rudy that Johnson only trusts him and states, “honestly is
key…maybe a White male is safer than a Native” (41). The statement shows that there is a
likelihood that most of the pains that were inflicted on Johnson were from Native males.
Also, the statement is supported by the fact that Leon, brother to Johnson was arrested
and prosecuted for sexually assaulting Karen their sister. Seven months after the trial charged by
Karen, Johnson and her cousin Darlene brought similar charges against their brother. The
contribution to Johnson's pain from the native males throughout the "Stolen Life" is evident as
she was abused by her Norwegian father. Despite the trust that Johnson gives Ruby, Ruby feels
that being a White male does not justify the trust. The statement that, "My White father and
grandfather abused me, but my Cree grandfather, John Bear, never touched me….” (198)
eliminates the justification that White men are to be trusted.
“Stolen Life” novel also offers a great challenge to the audiences as they are forced to
negotiate with the autobiographical voices between Johnson and Rudy. Because the novel is
writing aimed to address the women's life, Yvonne Johnson should have a contribution to the
textual construction and hold a distinctive voice in the book. Life writing should be a social
engagement process between the writer and the readers. The reader should understand the
circumstances that shape the writers subject.
"Stolen Life" novel is a story that employs both the use of the first-person and third
person. Some chapters are dominated by the textual presence of Ruby while in others his
presence vanishes and Johnson takes over as the narrator. A good example of a chapter where
Johnson dominates is the chapter six, "Growing Up in a Beer Bottle." The previous chapters
established the memories that Johnson experienced in incest and sexual abuse while chapter six
develops an analysis of abuse undergone by not only Johnson but by women in Cree Canada.
Yvonne in this chapter gives her experience of violence amidst the historical dispossession of her
descendants after the imprisonment of Big Bear.
The novel introduces the metaphor of running away from problems. Johnson states, "My
mother, my sisters, and me were running, looking over our shoulders, hiding…” (152). The
running, in this case, emphasizes running away from violence inflicted by men and colonizers.
Johnson and Minnie her sister is going away from Butte and Montana to escape the threats from
police who had already raped her. Besides, the people of Cree have normalized abuse and shame
among women. The point is supported by the fact that indigenous women had even accepted all
sorts of shame and violence. Johnson states that "by the age nineteen, Minnie had already
resigned herself to take whatever kind of violence…she refused to think about it" (163).
Moreover, Johnson recounts an incident when their mother got drunk, got raped and left naked.
The police who are supposed to protect the citizen also abuse the women. Johnson recalls a day
when she witnessed the bashing of her mother by Winnipeg police (160).
"Stolen Life" also states that the women helped the Native men to abuse their fellow
women. Johnson recounts an incident in which one Native woman invited her to a party. During
the party, the Native woman drugs her drink so that the relatives could rape her. When they met
later, Johnson beats her and states, "…sometimes women help them" (168). The phrase “help
them” refers to Native men. According to Johnson, she does not expect a girl who undergone the
trauma of being raped when she was young to brutalize others.
Towards the end of “Stolen Life”, the writer states, “Some stories need to be told, then
told again.” The appearance of the sentence is not clear to readers whether it has been spoken or
written by Johnson, or it was a provision by Rudy. The phase on page 389, "I must tell the story
again," directs the reader that it was Yvonne's narration. However, on the other hard Rudy
recounts how the story was passed to him and he states that "Yvonne tells me this particular
story… She tells me the story again…" (431)
Yvonne in the story, “Stolen Life” is the narrator who establishes the abuse and violence
that women in Cree underwent. Yvonne’s work is assembled by a White male Rudy with a
combination of both written and oral accounts. The life of Johnson has been surrounded by
sexual abuse which led her to participate in killing. "Stolen Life" forms a powerful experience to
the readers by establishing the dynamics of violations women encounter.
Wiebe, Rudy and Yvonne Johnson. (1998) Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman.
Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf.