Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography
by Chester Brown (Drawn & Quarterly, 2006)

The biggest hurdle in authoring any biography is that facts on the ground are hard to come by and even more difficult to interpret. At best, you get an angle shot that highlights a few areas. The difficulty increases a hundredfold when the subject is controversial. In many ways, Chester Brown's graphic novel biography, Louis Riel, does indeed present such a quandary, but it is one that is mitigated by Brown's passion for telling Riel's story, which is the most absorbing feature of this highly condensed, fascinating narrative about a crucial chapter in Canadian history.

While it's hard to agree on what exactly those elusive facts are, the familiar touchstones are this: In the late 1800s, the Canadian government wanted to break up the land along the Red River, which was prime territory for farming, into lots that favored the Anglo settlers moving into the area. In the process, they resorted to rather underhanded means to force the Metis people, descendants of the first settlers who occupied that land, to move out of the area. Riel was a French-Canadian farmer who did not organize a rebellion against the French-Canadian government so much as he agreed to be the head of a resistance movement that was probably already fomenting.

The Metis wanted the right to form their own representative government so they could have a voice in the Canadian Parliament, thereby keeping themselves from essentially being bullied. The Canadian government would not allow them to choose their own representative. Neither side would budge; the result, inevitably, was revolution. During this time, Riel was the figurehead of the movement, which eventually led to his arrest and execution. Sometime after Riel's death, Manitoba was created as a province and the Metis peoples were granted both their land and government within that province. This is the best of the known history; the rest, as it is often said, is up to interpretation.

Whatever may be said about Riel, one aspect of his character emerges clearly: he went to incredible extremes to fight for what he believed was right. Though he was sometimes, in the way of great but eccentric people, his own worst enemy, he was also a man of strong intention who ultimately prevailed (not necessarily while he lived) against an admittedly inefficient and unequal system that marginalized the Metis people as outsiders in a land they had farmed for generations.

Brown acknowledges both in his introduction and in his copious index notes that he can only present a version of what happened. For many, Riel is a folk hero and a rebel. For many others, he was a mentally unbalanced murderer and traitor. Riel was no saint, though he often believed himself to be one in his less mentally sound moments. Brown takes care to include as many points of view as he can in what is ultimately a compressed-to-the-point-of-simplicity biography, but the medium he uses fully embraces those contradictions while illuminating the real story of what human sacrifice can achieve in the name of self-determination. When you are dealing with a person as complicated as Riel was, sometimes the gift of illustration can impart a meaning that words simply cannot.

What is most impressive is not just Brown's brilliant art (influenced by Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie), which is a hand-in-glove match for the life it limns, but the passion with which he tells this labyrinthine story. I feel quite confidant in placing the impressive and compelling Louis Riel right up there with the best of its kind, such as Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis or Art Spiegelman's Maus. Accuracy may never be an attainable goal in any biography or autobiography; truth, on the other hand, is achievable by anyone who truly understands, and believes in, their subject. To that extent, Louis Riel has achieved its goal.

review by
Mary Harvey

17 September 2011

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