Book Review//Life in the City of Dirty Water

Life in the City of Dirty Water By Clayton Thomas-Muller

Book cover for Life in the City of Dirty Water

This book is on the Shortlist for CBC Canada Reads 2022.

Goodreads Synopsis:

There have been many Clayton Thomas-Mullers: The child who played with toy planes as an escape from domestic and sexual abuse, enduring the intergenerational trauma of Canada’s residential school system; the angry youngster who defended himself with fists and sharp wit against racism and violence, at school and on the streets of Winnipeg and small-town British Columbia; the tough teenager who, at 17, managed a drug house run by members of his family, and slipped in and out of juvie, operating in a world of violence and pain.

But behind them all, there was another Clayton: the one who remained immersed in Cree spirituality, and who embraced the rituals and ways of thinking vital to his heritage; the one who reconnected with the land during summer visits to his great-grandparents’ trapline in his home territory of Pukatawagan in northern Manitoba.

And it’s this version of Clayton that ultimately triumphed, finding healing by directly facing the trauma that he shares with Indigenous peoples around the world. Now a leading organizer and activist on the frontlines of environmental resistance, Clayton brings his warrior spirit to the fight against the ongoing assault on Indigenous peoples’ lands by Big Oil.

Tying together personal stories of survival that bring the realities of the First Nations of this land into sharp focus, and lessons learned from a career as a frontline activist committed to addressing environmental injustice at a global scale, Thomas-Muller offers a narrative and vision of healing and responsibility.

My Thoughts

Nothing really changes, unless a very brave individual, or a strong family, organizes a social movement to change it.

Life in the City of Dirty Water is a memoir written by Clayton Thomas-Müller and will be on this year’s CBC Canada Reads. It will be defended by Suzanne Simard from March 28-31 and is hosted on CBC. 

I had a lot of mixed feelings about this memoir. I really enjoyed the beginning and the ending, it’s the middle that gave me some trouble. I found that this section dragged, but I understand why it was included and why it’s important in Clayton’s memoir. This middle section detailed Clay’s life and his activism in addition to showing how the decisions of the people around him had a lot of influence on his life (whether that was in a positive or negative way). I felt that it was too dense. There were a lot of acronyms and I felt confused as to Clay’s involvement in each one and how they intersected in his life at different moments. Perhaps some more editing would have been beneficial? 

There is no justice without environmental justice. The plundering of the land is the plundering of the people. When the land is polluted, the people are polluted.

There was a lot of Clay’s personal life and trauma in this memoir. His experiences in the beginning and at the end of the novel impacted me and made me realize how privileged I am as a white female living in a land called Canada. The government did nothing for Clay, his family, and the Indigenous peoples. They still have a long way to go to make amends for how they have treated anyone other than white in this country. 

Even at the age of five, I understood that having fair skin, blond hair, and blue eyes would mean life would be easier.

Life in the City of Dirty Water had a non-linear plot and was focused mostly on Clay’s adolescent and young adult life. 

He was going through the same thing I was: we were realizing we were Native and the world was against us. It felt like it was us against the world.

It was repeatedly mentioned how Clay lacked positive role models, but how the women in his life advised him how to treat women – even when his mother and some of the other women in his life were in abusive relationships at one point. Clay lived primarily with his mother growing up – although they did move around a lot due to experiencing poverty. His mother sounds like an incredible woman who wanted the best of her son even if she didn’t know how to provide that for him. This memoir also spoke into intergenerational trauma and how Clay is breaking that with his sons. 

Starting over was the only thing I knew after a lifetime of my mother moving me to new neighbourhoods, new homes, new schools when she couldn’t make rent, or had to get a new job, or was trying to cope with other aspects of living in poverty.

Both of Clay’s parents were in residential schools. This is a topic that I am still learning more about as it was brushed over in my education in Ontario. When Clay said, “Why did the social studies books have only two pages about Indigenous Peoples?“ I felt like this was exactly how my education went. The most education I got on Indigenous Peoples was in my Grade 6 class because my teacher came to Ontario from the Pairires. She had so much knowledge of what it was like for Indigenous Peoples even if it was from a white perspective as she herself was white. 

Our world seems to take a special delight in destroying culture, but few of us know what life is like without tradition to make sense of it.

When I was completing my Bachelor’s of English, I had to take some Canadian literature courses. It was only during these two classes that I was really exposed to residential schools and even then it wasn’t anything substantial. Now as an adult I’m trying to learn more and educate myself about these matters. This book is a step in the right direction. 

I think that this is a very important read, and I can see why it was chosen for this year’s Canada Reads. I’m working my way through the five books, I may have to buy one of them because it currently has 70 holds on it from my library. 

We should not have to sacrifice the quality of air, the climate, the water to put food on the table, to put opportunity in the hands of people who want opportunity.

Let me know if you’ve read this book in the comments below!

Cups of Tea:

Tea Pairing: Awakening Tea from Algonquin Tea Company

Publisher: Allen Lane

Published: August 24, 2021

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