I’ve met Florence Kaefer only once, in the spring of 2012, on the steps outside a convention centre in Victoria. We were both attending a regional meeting of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was just starting hearings into the legacy of the Indian residential school system.
Kaefer’s interest in the event was deeply personal: she had taught at two United Church-run residential schools, first in Norway House, Man., and later in Port Alberni, a 90-minute drive away from her current home in Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley. I recognized her immediately from an article we had published three years earlier chronicling a journey of reconciliation she had begun with a Cree musician named Edward Gamblin. She had taught Gamblin at the Norway House residential school in the 1950s. The article, by Toronto writer Richard Wright, generated an enormous amount of reader response and brought the story of Gamblin and Kaefer to national attention.
On that spring day in Victoria, Kaefer told me that she was writing a book. It was mostly a labour of love for Gamblin, she said. Gamblin had been working on a memoir when he died two years earlier at the age of 62. Kaefer’s idea was to weave his unfinished story with hers, in the same way that their lives had become entwined since a twist of fate reconnected them in 2006. She had never written a book before and didn’t know the first thing about getting one published. But she spoke so passionately about the project that I left our encounter convinced the book would see the light of day, one way or another.
It has. With Kaefer and Gamblin credited as co-authors, Back to the Red Road (Caitlin Press) landed on my desk one day this spring. I took it home and wound up reading it in one sitting. Much has been written about truth, reconciliation and the residential school system, and doubtless much more remains to be written. But you don’t need to go any further than this book’s modest 208 pages to understand why truth telling and reconciliation are not options but necessities, and to catch a glimpse of the hope that can lie at the end of a reconciliation journey undertaken with humility and generosity.
The book alternates between chapters by Kaefer and chapters by Gamblin. For a first-time author, Kaefer writes with remarkable poise and flair, painting richly evocative pictures of northern Manitoba, where she arrived in 1954 as an idealistic but naive 19-year-old to teach at the United Church-run residential school in Norway House. She is equally adept at drawing readers into her emotional turmoil as her friendship with the adult Gamblin deepens and she begins to comprehend her complicity in a system where evil trumped good intentions because of the cruelty at its core.
Gamblin’s chapters are composites of his own prose, poetry and songwriting, and six years of correspondence with Kaefer. He is a gentle spirit, devoted to his family and his people, and he cherishes the bond that grows with his former teacher, whom he eventually comes to call “Mom.” But he dies with part of him still haunted by the abuse that started when he was five years old, and by the idea that his mere existence as a First Nations person was considered a “problem” by Canada’s government and churches.
Back to the Red Road is a story of loss, survival and healing — not just on Gamblin’s part, but on Kaefer’s too. But mostly it’s a love story, a story of the bonds that can flourish in the unlikeliest of places if nourished with goodwill and blessed with grace. It’s about more than Gamblin and Kaefer. It’s about hope for the reconciler in all of us.