By Sean Graham
I always thought that I was alone in connecting my personal surroundings to those I was researching. From the First World War soldier who wrote about loving and missing going to the theatre to the CBC producer who hated the number of memos they got, relating to people from the past and connecting them to our current world was a fun thought experiment as I waded through seemingly endless archival files. Over time, though, I have learned that a lot of people do this, whether in an effort to contextualize a person’s experiences, gain greater appreciation for those from the past, or just discover interesting anecdotes. Whatever the reason, making connections between past and present is a much more common practice than I once thought.
That helped me better understand Michelle Porter’s Scratching River, a personal memoir that connects her family’s search for a safe home for her brother with the oral history of her Metis ancestors. Like the river, her family traversed the terrain to find a home for her brother, who had been diagnosed both autistic and schizophrenic. Years later, as Michelle discovered the oral history of family members, the connection between them and their respective journeys across the plains became clear, as did the power of the river. The result is a beautiful memoir, where the catharsis of healing and love are front and centre.
In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Michelle Porter about the book. We discuss the process of writing the book and the unanticipated inclusion of her brother’s story (4:32), the story of Louie Goulet, and her personal connection to him (6:06). We also chat about the challenge of turning oral history into text (13:06) and the river as metaphor (26:40).
San Graham is a historian of Canadian broadcasting, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca