In Search of Cheryl Raintree

Sisterhood in Beatrice Mosionier’s In Search of April Raintree

by Anna Kozak

I can’t accept being a Metis. That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever said to you, Cheryl. And I’m glad that you don’t feel the same way I do… being a Metis means I’m one of the have-nots… I want what white society can give me… I’m different from you… You have to do what you believe is right for you, but I have to go my way… I’ll always be there if you need me

Beatrice Mosionier’s novel, In Search of April Raintree (1983), emphasizes the power of bonds between Native women. Especially important are familial bonds, such as sisterhood, in the world of foster homes and residential schools that try to isolate Native family members from their own cultures and each other. The internalized racism that develops throughout April’s childhood and adolescence contributes to her sense of alienation from her Metis heritage and her own sister, whom she perceives as being too Metis, both in terms of her appearance and beliefs. While April spends her whole life trying to distance herself from her sister and her Metis culture, Cheryl’s suicide allows April to develop a more intimate understanding of her sister’s life. April’s search for her identity is incomplete without her “posthumous reconciliation” with Cheryl (Gillis 68). Thus, when Cheryl dies and April discovers her letters and son, their bond strengthens, and April becomes ready to accept her Metis heritage. Only through Cheryl’s death can April finally begin her personal growth, self-actualization, and psychological healing from the trauma in her life.

Throughout her life, April deals with racism on a multitude of levels that can be primarily classified into two intertwining categories: personal and institutional. The violence and abuse, both childhood and sexual, that April faces from the DeRosiers and her rapists, respectively, are examples of personal racism. This includes the slanderous names that the DeRosiers call her, like “half-breed,” “squaw,” and “Ape, the bitch” (Mosionier 35, 46). While the word “half-breed” is used “as a synonym for sloth, squalor, and disobedience,” the term “Ape, the bitch” implies “a primordial savagery and animal sexuality,” which dehumanizes April (Smulders 82). The foster care process works to distance April from her Metis traditions as well as her family. April also experiences racism in the form of physical and verbal abuse and her rapists, in the added form of sexual violence. When April gets raped, she is forced into “the identity of the ‘squaw’—a figure created to justify sexual and racial abuse” (Fee 220). Thus, external identities are imposed upon April to dehumanize and limit her. Ultimately, both the DeRosiers and the rapists use their personal racism to justify mistreating April because they perceive her race as inferior.

Nonetheless, there are more subtle forms of thought that constitute personal prejudices, even though they stem from larger social institutions, such as the media and education. An example is the belief that April’s social worker, Mrs. Semple, has in the constructed trope of “the ‘Native girl’ syndrome,” (Mosionier 64). Although Mrs. Semple does not exhibit explicit hatred towards April for her Nativeness, she looks down on her and limits her scope for self-definition by confining her to such a stereotype. The ‘Native girl’ syndrome’s symptoms include, “[getting] pregnant right away, [being unable to] find or keep jobs… alcohol and drugs… shoplifting and prostitution … [going] in and out of jails… [and living] with men who abuse you” (64). As young and impressionable girls, this speech rattles April and Cheryl. The ‘Native girl’ syndrome blames the individual instead of acknowledging the social conditions that lead to these problems. Thus, these symptoms remain, as naturalized ideologies do, in April and Cheryl’s minds until the syndrome becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for Cheryl. Margery Fee notes that “April decides to be white; Cheryl decides to be a Native social worker. These choices—one typically evasive, the other typically resistant—protects them from identifying as the racist’s Other” (220). As a reaction to the identity that Mrs. Semple imposes onto them, April and Cheryl develop unique coping mechanisms that lead them towards different routes and ultimately alienate them from each other. Mary Gillis suggests that “the two sisters have marked differences in their outlooks— differences which lead to intense conflict and finally a rift that is healed only with Cheryl's death” (44). When Cheryl dies, April can no longer evade the social conditions that lead to the ‘Native girl’ syndrome and takes on Cheryl’s unfulfilled responsibility to fight for Metis rights.

Nevertheless, the most powerful form of racism that derives both from the personal and institutional places is self-hatred. As April encounters external racism throughout her childhood and adolescence, she internalizes it and develops a shame for her Metis heritage. When April and Cheryl first become isolated from each other when they are put into separate foster homes, “her ‘Metis sister’ remains the most important person in April’s life. She lives for her visiting days with Cheryl” (Gillis 49). At first, April has unconditional love for her parents and misses her family’s togetherness, but this perception deteriorates quickly. At this point, April still tries to grasp onto the familial and cultural bonds that have been ripped away from her by the social workers. When she begins to develop resentment towards her parents for no longer visiting them, April comforts Cheryl with, “No matter what, we’ll always have each other” and decides, “To hell with my parents! To hell with everyone, except Cheryl” (Mosionier 41, 43). April’s racist upbringing shifts her perception of her Metis culture and family and fills her with anger towards her parents. April also starts distancing herself from Cheryl in attempt to blend into white society since she believes that her sister represents her suppressed Metis self.

April spends the majority of her childhood and adolescence attempting to assimilate into the white-dominated world. She sees Cheryl, who looks more ‘Indian’ than her, as a threat to her ability to hide her Metis heritage. From the onset of the novel, April describes her family as:

My father, Henry Raintree, was of mixed blood, a little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of Indian. My sister, Cheryl… had inherited his looks: black hair, dark brown eyes that turned black when angry, and brown skin. There was no doubt they were both of Indian ancestry. My mother, Alice, on the other hand, was part Irish and part Ojibway. Like her, I had pale skin, not that it made any difference when we were living together as a family (1).

When April describes her father, she uses ambiguous terms, such as “a little of this, a little of that” and refers to him with the generalized misnomer, “Indian”. She also speaks about his and Cheryl’s “dark brown eyes that [turn] black when angry,” which implies a negative emotionality. However, when April states her mother’s background, she emphasizes its specificity, which is “Irish” and “Ojibway”. This difference in description suggests that April has a more positive view of her mother’s appearance. Even in this seemingly innocent account of her family, April reveals her hidden prejudice towards her father and Cheryl’s racially marked bodies. However, looking to the past from the present, April acknowledges that her family’s hybridity is irrelevant while they “were living together as a family”. Only once they are placed under white society’s scrutiny do the physical differences between April and her sister become relevant to their lives.

Once April and Cheryl are taken away from their parents, who are alcoholics and deemed by social workers to be unsuitable for raising their own children, April begins to distance herself from her Metis family and heritage. When April describes her Grade 10 life at St. Bernadette’s Academy, she states,

"I credited my ability to make friends easily to the fact that none of them knew I was part Indian… I came up with an outright lie, an excuse for being with Children’s Aid. I told my friends that my parents had died in a plane crash” (89).

April uses her light skin to obscure the fact that she is Metis and the real reason for being with Children’s Aid. Thus, April’s family and heritage become parts of her that she wants to repress to be accepted in white society.

April also decides to marry Bob Radcliff to further assimilate herself into the white world. Although Cheryl advises against it, April marries him and is ecstatic that she “wouldn’t have to worry about changing the spelling of [her] name, because it was now legally April Radcliff” (111). When Cheryl apologizes to April at the airport for disapproving of her marriage before April leaves to Toronto with Bob, April finally admits to her sister,

I can’t accept being a Metis. That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever said to you, Cheryl. And I’m glad that you don’t feel the same way I do… being a Metis means I’m one of the have-nots… I want what white society can give me… I’m different from you… You have to do what you believe is right for you, but I have to go my way… I’ll always be there if you need me (111).

For the first time, April admits to Cheryl that she is ashamed of her Metis background and tries to distance herself from her sister. April emphasizes the differences between herself and Cheryl with their outlook on their background, using phrases like, “you don’t feel the same I do,” “I’m different from you,” and “I have to go my way”. Nevertheless, Cheryl’s visit to Toronto exposes April’s Metis heritage and results in her stepmother’s successful attempt to end the marriage. In addition, April’s promise, “I’ll always be there if you need me,” is empty because her quest for whiteness causes her to leave Cheryl in a pivotal point of her sister’s life. While April tries to fit into white society in Toronto, Cheryl becomes the embodiment of the ‘Native girl’ syndrome when she becomes disillusioned upon finding her father and discovering her mother’s suicide and drops out of school, enters an abuse relationship, takes up alcoholism, and becomes a prostitute.

When April is raped, the primary damage does not derive from its violent misogyny, but the event’s assertion of Nativeness onto her. At this point, April realizes that she can no longer disconnect her physical appearance and Metis heritage from Cheryl. When April discovers that she was mistaken for Cheryl, “From April’s perspective, ‘she’ was not raped—Cheryl was, and implicitly, deserved it—so April no longer has to accept the imposition of Nativeness on her and can overcome her sense that she somehow deserved this degradation” (Fee 221). While Fee is correct that April displaces her rape onto Cheryl when she discovers the identity mix-up, I argue that this is the moment when April finally realizes that her familial connection to her sister, both in terms of appearance and Metis heritage, is inevitable. April physically feels the rape that was intended for Cheryl and while her sister’s past actions anger her, she realizes that she must learn to embrace their sisterhood bond to overcome this personal trauma.

In addition, April was unaware that Cheryl had a child until after her sister’s suicide. April’s nephew, Henry Lee, carries Cheryl’s as well as April’s genes and now becomes part of April’s life. When April finally meets Henry, she realizes, “I had used the words ‘my people, our people’ and meant them... It was tragic that it had taken Cheryl’s death to bring me to accept my identity. But no, Cheryl had once said, ‘All life dies to give new life’ (Mosionier 233-4). Even though Cheryl’s life is sacrificed in the process, her death helps April find herself. While April spent her entire life trying to alienate herself from her Metis heritage and family, Cheryl’s death was the final push towards April’s acceptance of her full identity, which now encompasses her deceased sister. According to Fee, “if Cheryl is April’s ‘Native’ side, she isn’t dead, and the baby also will always mark April as Metis in the same way Cheryl did” (224). Cheryl’s legacy lives on through April and her son. Although April was previously ashamed that her sister’s ‘Native’ appearance marked her, she now accepts her Metis identity.

Once Cheryl dies, April is finally able to reconnect with her sister. Cheryl’s suicide letter says, “April, you have strength. Dream my dreams for me. Make them come true for me” (Mosionier 233). Cheryl’s death imbues April with a sense of responsibility to fulfil her sister’s dreams. April begins close to Cheryl, but spends the majority of her childhood distancing herself, until she finally reunites “with Cheryl after her sister’s death” (Gillis 45). Gillis suggests that the novel is built on “doppelganger and circle motifs,” and “As the doppelganger, Cheryl personifies April’s Metis self… In order to complete the circle and find identity and wholeness, then, April must return to her Metis roots by reconciling with her sister” (45-6). In April’s search for April Raintree, her hybrid Metis identity, she should have been trying to reconnect with the aspects of her sister within herself. Only once Cheryl dies does April ultimately find her sister’s presence within herself and from then on, Cheryl lives through April. Thus, the novel’s true name should have been In Search of Cheryl Raintree.

Works Cited
Fee, Margery. “Deploying Identity in the Face of Racism.” In Search of April Raintree: Critical
Edition. By Beatrice Mosionier. Ed. Cheryl Suzack. Winnipeg, Man.: Portage & Main,
1999. 212-26. Print.
Gillis, Mary Sheila Colleen. “Woman as Healer: The Creation of an Ideal for Native Women in
Canada in Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, Beatrice Culleton’s In Search of April Raintree,  and Jeannette Armstrong’s Slash.” National Library of Canada (1994): 1-98. Google          
Scholar. University of New Brunswick, 1994. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.
Mosionier, Beatrice. In Search of April Raintree. Winnipeg, Man.: Portage & Main, 2008. Print.
Smulders, Sharon. “‘What Is the Proper Word for People Like You?’: The Question of Métis
Identity in In Search of April Raintree.” ESC: English Studies in Canada 32.4 (2006): 75-100. Project Muse. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.


© June 2015 Anna Kozak


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