When Athena was a young girl in the 60s, she lost her hearing to a childhood fever but was misdiagnosed as "profoundly retarded" and institutionalized for thirty years. Now she's out of the institution, awkward and bookish, and learning to integrate with mainstream society where nothing works quite like she thinks it should. Athena researches her past, trying to understand why she was institutionalized in the first place and why the people looking after her made such a huge mistake. At the same time, she tries to find a way to live with the man who was her lover in the institution, uncovering all sorts of surprises along the way.
Funny, tough, and serious-minded, Ruth DyckFehderau's I (Athena) recalls the work of Barbara Gowdy and Elizabeth Strout.
About the author
Ruth DyckFehderau has written two nonfiction books with James Bay Cree storytellers: The Sweet Bloods of Eeyou Istchee: Stories of Diabetes and the James Bay Cree (2017, 2nd Ed 2020) and E Nâtamukh Miyeyimuwin: Residential School Recovery Stories of the James Bay Cree, Vol. 1 (forthcoming 2023). Her work has been translated into five languages and she has won many literary awards. She sometimes teaches Creative Writing and English Lit at the University of Alberta. She lives in Edmonton with her partner. She is hearing-impaired. This is her first novel.
Excerpt: I (Athena) (by (author) Ruth DyckFehderau)
November 04, 1963, the town of Stenson
A man carries his daughter, she is four years old, to the car. Her curls are unruly and her cheeks still flushed from chasing her brother around the house. He sets her into the front passenger seat, tucks a red blanket around her. She smiles up at him, a little bewildered, but trusting him all the same.
He shuts her door, checks the oil, washes his hands under the tap at the side of the house where the stone veneer is chipping, and wipes them on a cloth which he fastens to the clothesline. He slides behind the wheel and honks the horn. His other three children, left with a neighbour girl, pause in their play and wave. He starts the car and they are off.
They drive past the dime store and the library, past the Laundromat and the new A&W, past the feed mill, there from Stenson's earliest days, past the quarry where he has worked for nearly twenty years, past the new residential communities expanding like yeast dough at the edge of town, past the town dump and McLaughlin's field (these days a ball diamond), and then Stenson is behind them. They drive through town after town, each with its own dime store and library and Laundromat and feed mill and ball field and dump. They drive through rolling farmland with red-roofed barns and fields now at rest, tan pinstripes of grain stalks on dark clay. They drive through orange and purple woods, once home to deer and foxes and timber wolves who tired of human crowding and moved elsewhere. The roads widen, become broad highways that bypass Toronto, cars cars everywhere. They drive past new automobile factories belching promises, past road crews frantically laying asphalt, steam from tar vats bitter on the tongue, past the runways and long terminals of Toronto International Airport (newly renamed and under construction again). Opportunity everywhere, if only you take it. They drive further still, past the reaches of commerce and industry and smog. They drive by rivers and cliffs, through more rolling countryside, more small towns. They drive for hours.
The father talks to the girl as he drives. He tells her about his childhood at the end of the Great Depression, how he sorted trash for things his mother could turn into something useful, how he was going to be a geologist, how close he came. He talks about his sister whom he loves dearly and his brothers who moved away. He talks about his remarkable wife, her mother, who is bedridden in hospital, waiting for their fifth child to be born.
And then he explains this astonishing decision he has made. Not justifying it exactly, just explaining. She hears nothing, but he says it anyway. She watches his face as he speaks. Once, he reaches over, strokes her cheek, and a tear falls from his eye. Silently, she looks at him. He has never cried in front of her before.
He stops the car at a sunny part of the riverbank for lunch. They are almost at their destination, but he wants to spend time with her, only her, before they arrive. The November day is warm and neither of them needs a jacket. He spreads the red blanket on the ground and opens the hamper he packed that morning. He reaches into a paper bag of grapes and pops the best unbruised ones right into her mouth. The juices squirt out from between her teeth. Then they eat tuna sandwiches that have been cut into quarters followed by brownies with frosting. He lets her eat as many brownies as she wants. When she turns a streaked and contented face to him, he wipes it with a wet cloth and finishes the last one himself.
After lunch, the last meal, he focuses his attention on her again. He gives her piggyback rides, throws her into the air and catches her, gets on hands and knees, and chases her around the trees in the soft grass until she laughs silently, face lit by a huge open-mouthed grin. And then he folds the blanket into a cushion for his back, leans against a tree, and holds his arms out to her. She climbs into his lap and he cradles her tightly to his chest for the longest time, until she falls asleep. With the blanket, he makes a bed for her in the back seat, then begins again to drive.
When she wakens, they have arrived and are parked in front of a large building. He has been watching her sleep. He gets out of the car, walks around to her door, and lifts her out. He holds her closely, there beside the car, not moving, for a long time. Still waking, she nestles into his neck.
Finally, resolutely, he turns around and carries her past the huge sign into the building and to the reception desk. "Hello Mr. Blessure, we've been expecting you. The paperwork has been prepared." A receptionist in a navy suit, smiles and marks an X on a paper of fine print, while a nurse in a pink uniform stretches out her arms. He passes the girl to the nurse and signs the paper.
Praise forI (Athena)
"Ruth Dyck Fehderau is a master in that beautiful art of the slow reveal. She has created in Athena a character I will not soon forget. Athena's story is fascinating and piercing, sometimes funny and sometimes utterly heart-rending; it is thoroughly researched and so well told. I read with wonder from the opening pages to the delightful final scene."
--Astrid Blodgett, author of You Haven't Changed a Bit
"As Athena breaks free from her stolen years, she's plunged into a world she must make sense of. By turns funny and heart shattering, rich with mesmerising detail and unsentimental prose, her journey is a profound exploration of what it means to be human."
--Fran Kimmel, author of The Shore Girl and No Good Asking
"In this harrowing, heartbreaking, and ultimately triumphant novel, Ruth DyckFehderau peels back the complex layers of identity and shows us, in moving, clear-eyed prose, how swiftly human rights can be stolen and how urgent is the fight to win them back."
--Frances Peck, author of The Broken Places
"A catastrophic misdiagnosis shunts a young life off the rails, leaving young Verity Blessure to waken, again and again, to worlds that profoundly mistake her. In I, Athena, Ruth DyckFehderau leads us on a memorable quest for human recognition and dignity through the eyes of the irrepressible Verity (Athena). A journey full of surprises, both wrenching and joyous, I, Athena also uncovers along the way the endlessly resourceful bonds of longing and belonging among the socially discarded and historically spurned, immersing us in a community that remains too often unseen, unheard, unwritten, to this day. A debut novel that on multiple levels reflects a triumph of informed empathy and imagination."
--Christine Wiesenthal, author of Instruments of Surrender and editor of The Collected Works of Pat Lowther
Other titles by Ruth DyckFehderau
E nâtamukw miyeyimuwin
Residential School Recovery Stories of the James Bay Cree, Volume 1
Dibaajimowinensan; Stories Along the Way
Histoires en cours de route / Stories Along the Way
Merii ni kaanikaapuu utipaachimu in aapimaakushtuhch uhchiiu; Merii ni kaanikaapu utipaachimu in, aapimaakustuiyiyiu; L'histoire de Mary Niquanicappo de Whapmagoostui
The Story of Mary Niquanicappo of Whapmagoostui
Anchilaa iitaap utipaachimuwin waashkaahiikinishihch uhchiiu; Aanchelaa iitaap utipaachimuwin, waaskaahiikanishiiuiyiyiu; L’histoire d’Angela Etapp de Waskaganish
The Story of Angela Etapp of Waskaganish
Mary Niquanicappo Whaapmagoostoo'ing Gaa-onjiid Odibaajimowin
The Story of Mary Niquanicappo of Whapmagoostui
Kimberly Coon Mistisiniing Gaa-onjiid Odibaajimowin
The Story of Kimberly Coon of Mistissini
Raakel emiliin welsh utipaachimuwin wiiminichiihch uhchiiu; Rakel emilaain welsh utipaachimuwin, wiininichiiuiyiyiu; L’histoire de Raquel Emmeline Welsch de Wemindji
The Story of Raquel Emmeline Welsch of Wemindji
Victor Gilpin Eastmain Gaa-onjiid Odibaajimowin
The Story of Victor Gilpin of Eastmain
Kimpirlii kuun utipaachimuwin mistisiniihch uhchiiu; Kimpirlii kuun utipaachimuwin, mistisiniiuiinuu; L’histoire de Kimberly Coon de Mistissini
The Story of Kimberly Coon of Mistissini