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Blue Bear Woman

$11.99$22.95

a novel by Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau; translated by Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli

Print: 978-1-77133-681-9 – $22.95
ePUB: 978-1-77133-682-6 – $11.99
PDF: 978-1-77133-684-0 – $11.99

170 Pages
September 20, 2019

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Blue Bear Woman is the first novel written by an Indigenous woman that was published in Quebec in the French language. The story of a young Cree woman’s search for her roots and identity, Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau’s debut novel, Ourse bleue, was originally published in 2007, and is her second novel to be translated into English. The novel explores contemporary Indigenous life and the impact on the Cree of the building of the Eastmain dam in northern Quebec, posited as “virgin” territory, yet which has actually been part of the Cree traditional territory since time immemorial. In search of her roots, Victoria takes a trip to the country of her Cree ancestors with her companion, Daniel. It is a long journey to the north along the shores of James Bay. Colours, smells, and majestic landscapes arouse memories that soon devolve into strange and hauntings dreams at night. In bits and pieces, uncles, aunties, and cousins arrive to tell the story of Victoria’s family and bring with them images of her childhood that are tinged both with joy and sadness. Guided by her totem, the Blue Bear, she returns home to make peace with her soul, as well as release the soul of her Great-Uncle George, a hunter who has been missing in the forest for over twenty years.

“Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau creates a world where tragedy and triumph travel side by side. Alternating between the realities of darkness and light, between past and present, the author’s main character ultimately celebrates strength in spirit. The reverence shown towards the Cree history, culture and people of Northern Quebec takes the reader on a journey, filled with stories that no longer wish to be hidden. No longer left untold. Bravo to Virginia and bravo to Inanna Publications for the translation.”
—Carol Rose GoldenEagle (Daniels), author of Bearskin Diary, Hiraeth and Bone Black

“A dizzying dive into a heartrending past. This is what Ourse bleue has to offer in its story of origins and mixed blood. No self-pity to be found in this novel. No hate-filled rage either. Only genuine concern and care that we too share. Coupled with powerful images that continue to haunt us even after we’ve turned the last page.”
Le Devoir

Translated from French by Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli.

Susan Ouriou is an award-winning literary translator (French and Spanish to English), fiction writer and conference interpreter. Among her co-translations is Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau’s first novel published in translation, Winter Child, and Emmanuelle Walter’s non-fiction book Stolen Sisters: The Story of Two Missing Girls, Their Families and How Canada Has Failed Indigenous Women, which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s award for translation. An earlier translation, Pieces of Me, won that same award. She is the editor of Languages of Our Land: Indigenous Poems and Stories from Quebec and the anthology Beyond Words: Translating the World. For many years, she translated and interpreted for the Banff Centre’s Indigenous Writing residency. She has also interpreted for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Christelle Morelli is a literary translator and teacher in Calgary’s Francophone school system. She has translated works of poetry and fiction, including Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau’s Winter Child and was short-listed for the Governor General’s translation award for Stolen Sisters. Born in France, she has lived in Quebec and Western Canada.

Blue Bear Woman


Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau is an internationally-recognized visual artist and published author of Cree origin. She has published three novels and two poetry collections in French. Born in Rapides-des-Cèdres in 1951, of a Cree mother and a mixed-race Quebecois father, she holds a Fine Arts Baccalaureate and has participated in numerous exhibitions in Quebec, United States, Mexico, Denmark, and received several awards for her art. In 2007, she published her first novel, Ourse blue. Her collection of poetry, De rouge et de blanc (2012) was awarded the Abitibi-Témiscamingue literary prize. Her subsequent novels include L’amant du lac (2013) and L’enfant hiver (2014). She lives in Abitibi, in northwest Quebec.

5 reviews for Blue Bear Woman

  1. inannaadmin

    Blue Bear Woman by Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau
    reviewed by The Miramichi Reader – September 12, 2019
    https://miramichireader.ca/2019/09/blue-bear-woman/

    Originally published in French as Ourse bleue in 2007, Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau’s book has the distinction of being the first novel published in Quebec by an Indigenous woman. Now, English readers have Blue Bear Woman, a translation by Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli and published by Inanna Publications.* Blue Bear Woman is a powerful little novel of a mixed blood Cree/Métis woman (Victoria is her given name) searching for the memories of her past growing up in the James Bay area of Quebec.

    This morning, we set out for James Bay. I have no idea the journey will lead me to obscure territories hidden deep in impenetrable atavistic memories.

    So begins Part 1: The Journey to James Bay.

    Victoria is accompanied on the journey by her husband Daniel, a non-indigenous man. They travel northward, sleeping in their rented van, camping when they can and renting a motel room when they need a shower and a real bed. Along the way, Victoria encounters family, such as many second cousins, but also more dreams that trouble her. She needs to find out what the dreams mean. She tells Daniel:

    “My dreams,” I say, “My latest dreams warned me. George hasn’t left. His spirit is still roaming there, he’s begging for help! I have to find a way to appease his spirit.”

    Victoria’s Great-Uncle George disappeared one particularly harsh winter when he went out alone to check his traplines and never returned. His body was never recovered, aside from a leg bone back in 1970 that exhibited teeth marks on it. Encouraged by this and by further dreams and assistance she gets along the way from documents, and an elderly shaman named Humbert Mistenapeo, Victoria is on her vision quest.

    In Part II: The Journey Within, Victoria’s own long-suppressed abilities as a shaman are awakened. Time is also of the essence, for Quebec Hydro will soon flood the area by building the Eastmain dam, submerging traditional Cree hunting grounds forever.

    All for the good of the white majority and Americans who will likely offer to purchase the province’s electricity surplus. Did the Cree chiefs, signatories to the Paix des Braves Agreement that allowed for the new developments, really believe they were helping their people?

    Victoria has pleasant memories of her family’s past way of life, but there are also the lingering ghosts of residential schools, abuse, the damaging effects of alcohol on her parents and siblings, suicide and more.

    The beginnings of a headache tell me my body needs a rest. I need alone time before my second cousin and I begin preparing the next stages of our search for Great-Uncle George’s bones. The river lures me with its long, grey sandbank. The air is humid, a sign of rain to come? I walk, I breathe, and the strangeness of this voyage north to my roots overwhelms me with a jumble of emotions I’d thought put to rest. The pain I believed to be under lock and key has been revived. My impatience and aggressive outburst over lunch were simply a sign of my unwillingness in the face of an inevitable journey. Shaman Mistenapeo’s power has delivered me to the dreaded depths.

    The past, alcohol, neglect, and lost loved ones resurface, the drowned rising from a lake bed. How can I come to a spirit’s rescue when I’ve been incapable of helping the living? When I have no hold over those still with us even now sliding into the abyss? A wave of anguish provokes a howl that’s cut off by sobs wracking my body. I sit with my back against a rock, my head and arms resting on my raised knees. The coils around my solar plexus assert their stranglehold, tightening around me like some wild, enraged animal’s fangs. Waves of sorrow reach into the marrow of my bones, into my cells, my atoms. A pack of repressed images hurls itself at me.

    This is not an easy trip for Victoria. Daniel, while accommodating for the most part, does not share her spiritual ways and this leads to frustration, and soon enough, tragedy.

    In Daniel Heath Justice’s seminal book, Why Indigenous Literatures Matters, he states: “Stories are bigger than the texts or the bodies that carry them.” So it is with Blue Bear Woman. Ms. Bordeleau shifts back and forth between her youth (the early 1960s) and the present (2004) as she weaves a mesmerizing story of discovery, loss, family, and spiritual direction that was a pure joy to experience. The patient reader is rewarded with Victoria’s deepest thoughts as she recalls happy times, simpler times, wondrous stories recounted by her elders, and the dreams that compel her to press on. However, always present are the insidious actions of the white man (past and present) and how they have changed the Cree peoples in immeasurable ways. A 5-star read, Blue Bear Woman, is on the 2020 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Fiction.

  2. Inanna Admin

    Blue Bear Woman by Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau; Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli (trans.)
    reviewed by Quill and Quire – December 2019
    https://quillandquire.com/review/blue-bear-woman/

    There is a sense of calm as Victoria, a middle-aged, mixed-race Cree woman, sets off on a road trip to James Bay with her settler husband, Daniel. It is a calm derived from satiety and perhaps a dash of complacency: Victoria is a renowned poet, her life with well-meaning Daniel is comfortable in defiance of her past. But as she encounters cousins and friends and contentedly partakes in the Cree tradition of slow, meandering conversation, childhood memories – some peaceful, others traumatic – begin to resurface.

    Victoria is beset with upsetting dreams, particularly of her great uncle George, who disappeared on a solo hunting expedition five decades earlier. Driving deeper into her peoples’ traditional territory, including land soon to be washed away by the rerouting of the Rupert River for the Eastmain hydroelectric plant, Victoria accepts a spiritual mission to find George’s body. So resilient is she that not even a tragic accident can stop her on her quest.

    Blue Bear Woman, which initially appeared in French in 2007, was the very first novel written by an Indigenous woman to be published in Quebec, a testament to the extreme underrepresentation of Indigenous voices in francophone literature. Author Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau was already an internationally recognized painter and prize-winning poet when she published this debut. Having since brought out two additional novels in French, she remains one of the few recognized Cree authors of her generation in Quebec.

    This meditative first-person narrative touches on a number of contemporary Indigenous issues, including intergenerational trauma and land rights. But it is, above all, a profoundly intimate account of a woman’s spiritual journey. Bordeleau’s narrator, in spite of her past, never induces pity. “I recognize the Cree exuberance,” Victoria remarks early in the novel, upon hearing laughter, talk, and the opening and closing of doors in a Waskaganish hotel. It is a line the reader is reminded of often in what follows: this is a novel about exuberance – a hunger for life and love even in the face of death.

  3. Inanna Admin

    Blue Bear Woman by Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau; Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli (trans.)
    reviewed by The Literary Review of Canada – March 2020
    https://reviewcanada.ca/

    Excerpt:

    Blue Bear Woman is a worthy read, as it heralds the long-overdue reception of francophone Indigenous voices in English, but also because it is a layered and rewarding exploration of how people shape the land and are shaped by it in turn — in their memories, histories, and relationships.

  4. Inanna Admin

    Blue Bear Woman by Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau; Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli (trans.)
    reviewed by The Minerva Reader – March 2020
    https://www.theminervareader.com/

    I agree wholeheartedly with James Fisher, of The Miramichi Reader, when he says: “In Daniel Heath Justice’s seminal book, Why Indigenous Literatures Matters, he states: “Stories are bigger than the texts or the bodies that carry them.” So it is with Blue Bear Woman. Ms. Bordeleau shifts back and forth between her youth (the early 1960s) and the present (2004) as she weaves a mesmerizing story of discovery, loss, family, and spiritual direction that was a pure joy to experience. The patient reader is rewarded with Victoria’s deepest thoughts as she recalls happy times, simpler times, wondrous stories recounted by her elders, and the dreams that compel her to press on. However, always present are the insidious actions of the white man (past and present) and how they have changed the Cree peoples in immeasurable ways. A 5-star read, Blue Bear Woman, is on the 2020 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Fiction.

    I was enthralled by the story, swept away on colliding emotions and pulled into this visceral, often devastating, but extremely uplifting tale. I was unable to put the book down. This wonderful book speaks to so much. It’s so beautifully written and it’s an important read on many levels.

  5. Inanna Admin

    Blue Bear Woman by Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau; Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli (trans.)
    reviewed by The Montreal Review of Books – March 12, 2020
    https://mtlreviewofbooks.ca/reviews/blue-bear-woman/

    Prize-winning Cree and Algonquin painter and poet Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau wrote and published her debut novel, Ourse bleue, in 2007 – the first to be published by an Indigenous woman in Quebec. Blue Bear Woman is, however, her second to be translated into English, and finely so by award-winning translators Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli. Published by Inanna Press, the novel traces the seemingly easy and meandering journey the narrator, Victoria, makes to visit relatives and piece together her family story. It also makes plain her desire to resolve the enigmatic death of her Great-Uncle George, who went missing in 1953 on his hunting expedition during a period of starvation. She is intermittently troubled by dreams about his disappearance, in which he reminds her of “her mission” to find his bones. In 2004, she thus embarks with her partner, Daniel, for James Bay, in part to see if she can account for the mystery surrounding this presumed death.

    The narrative follows the immediate and literal journey she undertakes with Daniel into her peoples’ traditional territory around James Bay. It is interspersed with flashbacks to her childhood, a personal and psychological journey into “obscure territories hidden deep in impenetrable atavistic memories.” One of these memories is an exchange with her mother, who observes that “your dreams sometimes showed you things you could never have seen.”

    Victoria will learn that her dreams are indeed a “gift” that reveal moments she has not witnessed – or has yet to witness – and which are understood within Cree epistemologies in ways far more potent than she initially understands. What she learns on this journey thus also becomes crucial to her relationships with her Cree family members and her understanding of her place in the community. The title references the “the constant presence of the bear figure” in her dreams, which her father reminds her is also significant to the specific terms of her conception and identity. She will later learn that she has been chosen by the Bear Spirit, and that her “totem,” the Blue Bear, provides her with this gift of sight, among others.

    As Victoria spends time with aunts, uncles, and cousins, she pieces together the story of the legacies surrounding her family and herself. However, the journey also highlights several challenges – not the least of these being intergenerational trauma and the struggle for land rights. As she attempts to locate the remains of her uncle, she is confronted by Québécois and American archeologists and anthropologists working on the Nadoshtin Project, a series of agreements made between the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) and Hydro-Quebec. They consult with the Elders, whose ancestors used to stay on traditional Cree territory and who are able to identify the graves of members who lived there – all of which are profoundly affected by the construction of hydroelectric dams on the banks of the Eastmain River. David, one of the scientists Victoria meets, also works with the Elders to develop the cultural heritage program that would “honour the ‘memory’ of the Eastmain and Rupert rivers.” The latter offers a point of comparison with past incursions manifested in the various markers of Catholicism: Victoria notes these tangible incursions, for example, in the form of the chapel, built by missionaries and transplanted to the village of Chisasibi, and the related legacies of trauma that have permeated her family history.

    The narration of Blue Bear Woman is uneven at times, but overall, the elegant, spare writing evocatively contrasts with moments of great intensity and drama. The seemingly “easy” journey is ultimately challenged by discoveries and events that are entirely unexpected but lead to profound insight. Blue Bear Woman is a gift to its readers.

    Linda Morra is a Full Professor in the English Department of Bishop’s University, where she teaches Canadian, Indigenous, and American literatures.

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