The Outside Circle (Book Review)

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Rating: 4/5
Rating: 4/5

For its second book of the year, the Lorenzo Reading Series has ventured in a slightly different direction with The Outside Circle. Focusing on the vicious cycle of gang violence and addiction plaguing inner-city Aboriginal communities across Canada, Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings’ graphic novel tells an intensely moving story about getting in touch with one’s heritage that will move all who read it.

While most of the books in Lorenzo’s annual reading series are traditional novels, the stunning artwork featured in The Outside Circle along 

with its unique and powerful storytelling make this graphic novel a standout addition in this year’s lineup.

The Outside Circle tells the story of Pete, a young Aboriginal man who grew up in the inner-city and got wrapped up in gang violence and crime due to poverty. His story begins when a brawl with his mother’s violent, heroin-addicted boyfriend gets him thrown in prison on a manslaughter charge. Readers then accompany him on his journey toward self-betterment at the Stan Daniels Healing Center in Edmonton, where he participates in the In Search of Your Warrior program.

Here, he is encouraged to reflect upon his past and the past of his Aboriginal ancestors in order to decide what kind of a man that he wants to be in the future. By conferring with the elders who run the center, Pete gets reacquainted with his Aboriginal roots, reunites with family members that he never realized he had, and he learns what it means to be a part of ‘the outside circle’ – a term used by his ancestors to describe the warrior men of their tribe that protected the women, children and elders before European colonization wreaked irrevocable havoc upon them all.

(Photo courtesy of House of Anansi Press)

Through LaBoucane-Benson’s riveting storytelling and Mellings’ extraordinary artwork, readers glimpse the horrors of inner-city violence and poverty, drug abuse, and the destructive pattern of hatred and anger (sparked by the abuse endured in residential schools) that started it all.

After reading The Outside Circle, all history lessons on residential schools in Canada will feel grossly inaccurate. Unlike high school teachers, who feel the need to gloss over the despicable actions of the Europeans in order to support the propagandistic belief that Canada is (and always has been) “perfect”, LaBoucane-Benson doesn’t glaze over the issue. She describes the abuse inflicted upon the children forced into residential schools and its long-lasting psychological impact in vivid, ruthless detail, and Mellings paints the picture for audiences with equal vibrancy in each and every illustration. They ought to be applauded for their clear depiction. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to tell the truth and to portray a situation with blunt accuracy – and this is courage that most people today, living in our idealized country, lack.

Photo: After receiving a tattoo from his gang leader, Pete’s blood contains a list of past acts of violence and cruelty committed against Aboriginal peoples that symbolically represents why the future generations end up in positions of violence, abuse and poverty. Artwork by Kelly Mellings.

Because Mellings’ artwork plays such a crucial role in telling Pete’s story, it is important that readers don’t skip The Outside Circle when exploring this year’s Lorenzo reading list just because it is a graphic novel. The genre has unfairly been stigmatized as a “lesser” form of literature and it is a stigma that readers ought to leave in the past. There is valuable symbolic imagery behind many of Mellings’ illustrations and, were this not a graphic novel, the opportunity to make such powerful statements would be impossible. With just one illustration, Mellings can effectively portray the issues tackled in the book in a way that plain text never could.

The power of The Outside Circle, accomplished through LaBoucane-Benson’s story and Mellings’ illustrations, showcases what an outstanding team that they are and why readers should give the graphic novel medium a fair chance.

Ultimately, LaBoucane-Benson and Mellings argue with their narrative that we are all more than our circumstances influence us to be; we must choose our own paths in life, even if taking the positive road isn’t always simple. The journey that Pete takes, the struggles that he endures, and his dedication to becoming a better man is one that will have all readers rooting for him to the very end, and will leave them with a great deal to think about once they finish the novel – about our heritage, our attitudes, and the type of people that we choose to be.

While our circumstances may not always be ideal, one line in particular from The Outside Circle should resonate with everyone: “Every day gets a bit easier.”

Author Patti LaBoucane-Benson will be reading from The Outside Circle on September 26th at UNBSJ in the Ganong Hall Lecture Theatre, and illustrator Kelly Mellings will give a presentation. The event will begin at 7:00pm and will be followed by a Q&A session and light refreshments. All interested parties are welcome to attend at no cost, as all Lorenzo Reading Series events are free.

For those unable to attend, a recap of the event will be provided by the Baron at a later date.

All of the books featured in the Lorenzo Reading Series are available for purchase at the campus bookstore and to borrow at the Hans Klohn Commons.

Additional information on the In Search of Your Warrior program featured in The Outside Circle can be found here.