________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 4. . . .September 25, 2009


The Life of Helen Betty Osborne: A Graphic Novel.

David Alexander Robertson. Illustrated by Madison Blackstone.
Winnipeg, MB: In a Bind Publications (Distributed by Portage and Main Press), 2008.
32 pp., pbk., $19.71.
ISBN 978-0-9689653-4-4.

Subject Headings:
Indian woman -Manitoba -Death -comic books, strips, etc.
Graphic novels.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters & Angela Joyal.

**½ /4


The first page of The Life of Helen Betty Osborne: A Graphic Novel presents a scene somewhere in a small, northern community. It is winter, and, as some high school boys walk to school, they overtake a classmate, a young Aboriginal woman, and push her off the path so that she falls into the snow. Their comments: “Dude, the squaw can’t keep her balance. She’s so drunk! Sleep it off, Pocohontas!” A few frames later, another young man approaches, and despite her request for help, he walks by, saying, “sorry . . . but I . . . I’m late for school already.” At school, he thinks to himself, “not like it’s hard to get out of a snowbank . . . she could have gotten up herself. Besides, I’ve got lots of Aboriginal friends as if I’m as bad those jerks. I . . .” Then, the young woman enters the school in tears, understandably upset. On the next page, a young teacher writes on a school black board: The Life of Helen Betty Osborne. So begins a graphic novel version of her story.

     The story of the tragic murder of Helen Betty Osborne is both simple and complex. In the early hours of November 13, 1971, a young Aboriginal woman, Helen Betty Osborne, was walking home alone, after spending some time with fellow students at The Pas’ Margaret Barbour Collegiate. On her way back home from the Northern Lite Café, she was abducted by four young white men, sexually assaulted, and then viciously beaten and stabbed with a screwdriver. Despite the horrific nature of her murder, and the identities of her killers being known to many in The Pas, no arrests were made until 1986, and the subsequent trial resulted in only one conviction. However, as a result of the case, the Manitoba government undertook the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, an inquiry into the treatment of Aboriginal people under the province’s provincial justice system. The AJI is a landmark in Canadian judicial history, a legacy of Betty Osborne’s tragedy.

internal art      David Robertson, the author of this graphic novel, states that “the call of this story is to realize that one person can make a difference, and, indeed, should feel personally responsible to contribute to the betterment of our society.” (endpapers) This graphic novel relates both the past events which led to Betty’s murder and offers a present-day narrative in which Daniel, the young man who ignores the young woman in the snowbank, sees the price of evading responsibility for one’s behaviour. That’s a huge amount to accomplish in a mere 30 pages, and despite my reading the novel several times, I wasn’t entirely convinced that this objective had been meant.

     Certainly, Betty Osborne’s murder was a tragedy situated in the context of systemic racism. It is impossible to read this story without facing these realities. Clearly, both David Robertson and Madison Blackstone (the illustrator) found the story to be powerful and inspiring. However, as a white (but “ethnic”) Canadian, I don’t know how this re-telling of the story resonates with readers of Aboriginal background. So, I asked a colleague, Angela Joyal, a teacher of senior high English, to read and respond to the book.

     Like me, she thought that the book would probably work for students in Grades 9 and 10, and, as an ELA teacher, she would use it as a supplementary text to the Aboriginal studies unit which is part of our school district’s English/Language Arts program. However, Angela commented that “I don’t think that students would get the theme of one person’s making a difference on their own. Also, I’m not sure that students would see that things are the same now. The way the town covered up the murder is just as horrific as the actual event, and yet the book does not touch on that aspect.” She also pointed out the need to provide some crucial context for the story: “There are lots of holes in the story that students would need filled. Lessons on residential schools, reserve life and the actual investigation would be needed.”

    I wasn’t entirely convinced that the graphic novel format added to the re-telling of the story; sometimes the illustrations were rendered in sombre, greyed-out tones, sometimes in “colourized” black and white, and in the final pages, a selection of digital photographs were included. Lack of consistency detracted from the visual impact that the illustrations could have had. The graphic rendering of the present-day characters (Daniel and classmates) lacked unique physical characteristics which made them stand out as individuals. Perhaps this was done deliberately to suggest that they can represent “anyone,” but it also made it difficult to sort out “who’s who” in the story. The visual component of a graphic novel can add richness and depth to a story; the additional visual content can also assist weaker students, a point which Angela raised in her review content.

    Rather than relying primarily on dialogue to carry the story, Robertson offered small narrative passages to convey the messages of cultural loss resulting from the residential school system, the injustices of segregation and racism, and the moral failure of a town which closed its eyes to a horrific truth. It is always more effective to “show” than to “tell,” and given the 30-page limit of the book, more effective use of dialogue would have made the story more powerful.

    The Life of Helen Betty Osborne: a Graphic Novel is a project which has been three years in production. It is certainly motivated by a powerful desire “to contribute to the elimination of racism, sexism, and indifference.” (endpapers) Both Angela and I understand the emotion behind this project but believe that the final result falls short of its undeniably good intentions.

Recommended with reservations.

Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB, while Angela Joyal is a member of that school’s English Department.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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