I don’t tend to read a lot of nonfiction works, but when I do, they’re almost always a memoir. I find memoirs compelling and interesting, as they are the best way to learn about the life of anyone, no matter how similar or different from you they may be. Jesse Thistle tells the story of his life in his memoir “From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way”, which is filled with scenarios and stories I have not, and cannot ever, experience. His life as a young Métis-Cree man who grew up without his parents, then becoming homeless for several years, is a life far removed from my own. It was an eye opening story to read and become immersed in, and I felt myself hoping for Jesse’s recovery and peace from the opening pages.
Jesse and his two older brothers were introduced to trauma at an early age. With their parents separated, his drug-addicted father kept the boys in a run down and dangerous apartment until he abandoned them. The boys were found and brought to foster care when Jesse was just three. The boys were raised by their paternal grandparents, a house laced with hard rules and disagreement, until Jesse was caught disobeying the rules of the house (and began using drugs as his father did) and was swiftly kicked out of the house. He became homeless for several years after that, moving around Canada trying to survive. He lived through some incredibly dangerous times, including falling from a building and nearly dying as a result, being set up as a murderer (complete with the guilty outfit), as well as living with a prolonged infection in his foot that left it completely numb and useless for a time, barely escaping amputation. Jesse’s drug and alcohol addictions resulted in his criminal acts of robbery to feed his addictions, landing him in jail multiple times. Eventually, Jesse realizes that he will die if he does not turn his life around. Jesse went from being a high school dropout to an assistant professor at York University and recipient of the Governor General’s Academic Medal in 2016 and is a Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Scholar and a Vanier Scholar.
Jesse’s struggles were harrowing to read about. No matter how many times he fell back into his old habits of crime and addiction, I continued to cheer for him and his eventual recovery. Hope and resilience radiate off the page and follow Jesse throughout his life. Before he feels those things for himself, the reader can see a man struggling with the demons of his past and trying to make a better life for himself. As Jesse remarks in the book, “All us criminals start out as normal people just like anyone else, but then things happen in life that tear us apart, that makes us into something capable of hurting other people. That’s all any of the darkness really is—just love gone bad. We’re just broken-hearted people hurt by life.” Jesse’s life was faced with challenges from the very start, which left him vulnerable to the mistakes of his father and the influence that being abandoned can leave on a person.
Thistle goes to rehab and jail multiple times before he is able to pull himself out of the darkness and begin a new life, putting the demons behind him. As Jesse begins this new life, he looks back and remarks on how, during his years on the street, he noticed a disproportionate number of Indigenous people on the streets with him. Today, Thistle is a homelessness advocate and a PhD candidate in the History program at York. Thistle is working on theories of intergenerational and historic trauma of the Métis people, and has written another book, “Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada”, and continues to do more to help combat this injustice. Jesse Thistle’s memoir is one of perseverance, resilience and the ability to know one’s worth. Jesse inspires readers of his memoir to hug their loved ones tight and to believe in the people around you. If you’re looking for an inspiring story, pick up “From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way” by Jesse Thistle today!