Book Review: Jesse Thistle's _From the Ashes_

Book Review: Jesse Thistle’s From the Ashes

by Renn

“This can’t possibly get any worse,” I said to Gina. I wasn’t talking about the book itself; in this uncompromising memoir, Jesse Thistle recalls over a decade of drug and alcohol addiction, petty crime, and a revolving door of homeless shelters and couches. Thistle’s voice is gripping and earnest, unclouded by hindsight, neither condemning nor exonerating the self he has since grown beyond. It’s a great read, and an important one for anyone attempting to understand addiction and homelessness—especially as it disproportionately affects Indigenous communities—from an outsider’s point of view.

So, no, I wasn’t talking about the book itself when I said “This can’t possibly get any worse.” I was referring to an event in the book, in which Thistle gets framed for murder.

I was proven wrong within a couple of chapters. And then again, a couple of chapters later, at which point I stopped saying “This can’t possibly get any worse” and simply let the book show me how it did.

Growing up in Brampton, Ontario, in his grandparents’ house, Thistle falls into the same cycle of addiction and homelessness that led his father to abandon him and his brothers as toddlers. Their grandfather is strict and believes in corporal punishment, which causes increasing conflict as Thistle and his brothers grow older and more headstrong. Jesse in particular takes after his father’s wild ways, which his grandfather tries in vain to suppress. When his grandfather finally catches him with a baggie of cocaine, Jesse is immediately kicked out of the house, marking the start of over a decade of living on the streets.

I challenge anyone to read this book without growing a little more compassionate and understanding towards the next unhoused person you see on the street. Thistle’s experiences, from being cut off by family members to stealing to stay alive, to nearly losing his leg after a bad fall, to purposely getting arrested so he can receive medical care in jail, speak to the systems in place that make it difficult for everyone affected by drug abuse and homelessness—from kind souls who open their homes to strangers to the children of addicts who can’t support themselves, let alone a family—to get the help they deserve. But the true beauty of Thistle’s memoir lies in the abundance of love contained in these pages. Through trauma and incarceration, withdrawal and starvation, Thistle, his family, and his now-wife continue to love each other in various complicated ways.

Yes, it does indeed get worse than being framed for murder (which, by the way, I am still not over, because what the actual fuck?). But, thanks to a whole lot of hard work and a network that finally manages to give Thistle the support he needs, it gets a whole lot better after that, too.

We highly encourage everyone—regardless of whether you choose this book for your March box—to take a look at Jesse Thistle’s scholarly work on Indigenous identity, homelessness, and theories of intergenerational and historic trauma of the Métis people. Most of his work is available online, as linked above—his Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada is a good place to start.