250 Hours by Colleen Nelson is a young adult novel that introduces readers to social issues creating divisions among Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Canadians, while depicting how these issues manifest themselves in the problematic relations marked by discrimination, role-reduction, and conflict. However, while it is classified as a young adult novel, non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal Canadians of all ages will find in its pages a compelling representation of the social and economic realities all Canadians experience in reservations and in small town communities. The assumption that should be made is that many Canadians, like Sara Jean’s Gam, were educated in only a partial history of the residential school system, and may not realize that this school system amounted to a form of cultural genocide. The fallout of this school system is richly depicted in Jess, who grew up without a father and faced discrimination, as well as in Jess’s father, Gus, who returns home with liver cancer, having lived a life attempting to cope with his past with alcohol. The novel also depicts the conflict non-Aboriginal Canadian women experience within their own culture, particularly the conflict young women face in deciding between marriage to a safe and secure future fulfilling a traditional role as homemaker, though this role may involve being subservient within the community and within the family, and a more uncertain future as a university-educated, independent woman. The novel presents parallel trajectories, that of Jess, a young Aboriginal man who has just been convicted of his second arson and has been sentenced to community service, and that of Sara Jean who has just graduated high school in her small community and must choose between a post-secondary education in Winnipeg and marriage to Rich, the son of a wealthy car dealership owner, who grew up in a traditional household.
Nelson does an admirable job intertwining the narrative strands of Sara Jean and Jess, which makes this novel a gripping and compelling read. Jess’s community service is to clean the garage of Sara Jean’s Gam, who suffers from an illness that has left her terminally obese and bed-ridden. While supervising the cleaning of the garage, Sara Jean notices articles belonging to her departed grandfather indicating that he had worked in the residential school system. Jess has second-hand knowledge of the residential schools, from stories passed on to him by members of his reservation. As Sara Jean learns of the residential school system and its effects on Jess’s community, the two of them develop a friendship, aided in part by Sara Jean’s growing revulsion towards her boyfriend, Rich, who, out of thinly veiled jealousy and deep-seated prejudice, becomes one of the novel’s antagonists, in his racist treatment of Jess and his aggression toward Sara Jean. Jess’s reservation, Deep River, is located close to one of the residential schools and the school literally and figuratively casts its shadow over the community. It is both a symbol of an indelible past, as the Canadian government refuses to tear it down, and a metaphor for the forking paths of the reservation’s future. A gang has arrived in Deep River with plans to use the residential school as a meth lab, while proposals have been made toward the community to build a dam on the river. The dam means that the eco-system surrounding Deep River will be irreversibly changed, though it also means there will be jobs for residents in the community, jobs that will provide them with the means to resist the advances of the gang.
250 Hours is a novel that, for its accessibility and seamless narrative structure, holds a great deal of weight. The intersection of Jess and Sara Jean’s stories allow an entanglement of issues and themes to be explored and parsed. Jess and Sara Jean are highly sympathetic characters, with responsibilities and hopes that speak to the heart of what it means to have misgivings in a relatively care-free, democratic nation. Furthermore, it is a novel that moves quickly, much more quickly than the 250 hours it takes Jess to fulfill his obligations to the non-Aboriginal community. Yet, in such a short span of time, one gains a perspective on the social, cultural, and economic forces that can divide Canadians, especially the effects of prejudice on a group of Canadians who would sooner live in a state of deprivation on reservation land, than under the strain of prejudice in Canadian cities. In spite of the seriousness of the subject matter underpinning the plot, Nelson’s novel is light on its feet, nimble and brisk. This novel is highly recommended for all readers, but will absolutely enthrall high school and university students interested in acquiring a humanist angle on Canada’s colonial past.
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