Authors: Rudy Wiebe
The National Bestseller
Winner of the 1998 Viacom Canada
Writer’s Development Trust Non-Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the 1998 Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction
Winner of the 1998 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction
Winner of the 1999 Alberta Book Award for Non-Fiction
Winner of the 1999 Edmonton City Book Prize
“Rudy Wiebe works here like a great jazz guitarist.… Wiebe supports, clarifies, and encourages Yvonne Johnson and at crucial moments solos through trial transcripts with consummate skill that unerringly calls into question the police practices and courtroom proceedings that have miscarried justice in this case.… Brilliant.”
The Toronto Star
“An incredible story … [Yvonne Johnson’s] life reads like a novel.…
is truly the story of a journey from hell to redemption.… A powerful [account] of justice and injustice, of tragedy and triumph, of redemption and healing.”
Regina Community Free Press
brings the story of one woman seeking to reclaim her history, to understand her pain, and to honour her responsibilities. In so doing, it honours the central principle of oral tradition: that only those who have memory will understand.… A moving account.”
Quill & Quire
is not light summer reading. The catalogue of abuses that comprise Johnson’s life is not easy to take.… But the unblinking honesty of her writing keeps us with her. Definitely recommended, but steel yourself beforehand.”
The Vancouver Sun
“Deeply affecting …
is a rare book, one that resonates for months after you read it and challenges and changes your perspective on the world.”
FIRST VINTAGE CANADA EDITION
Copyright © 1998 by Jackpine House Ltd.
All rights reserved under International and Pan American Copyright Conventions. First published in hardcover in Canada by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, Toronto, in 1998. Distributed by Random House of Canada Limited.
Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data
Wiebe, Rudy, 1934-
Stolen life: the journey of a Cree woman
1. Johnson, Yvonne, 1961 –.
2. Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge (Maple Creek, Sask.)
3. Women prisoners – Saskatchewan – Maple Creek – Biography.
I. Johnson, Yvonne, 1961 –. II. Title.
53 1999 365’.43’092 C98-932388-9
constitutes a continuation of the copyright page
Cover design: CS Richardson
To my children, whom I love endlessly;
to all survivors and those who help them;
and, with the greatest respect, to Rudy
To the memory of Mistahi Muskwa (Big Bear),
The sentence has changed.
Once I could not remember.
Now I cannot forget.
Don’t: A Woman’s Word
But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.
The Myth of Sisyphus
We pray at best for the open wound to grow a scar.
“A Part of Ourselves”
This book is based on what Yvonne Johnson holds to be her own truths about the life she has lived. However, since there is never only one way to tell a story, other persons involved in this one may well have experienced and remember differently the events and actions here portrayed. The book is also based on my research into the circumstances of Yvonne’s life. Besides over five years of dialogue with her, this research involved travel to various places crucial to the story; interviews wherever possible; attendance at trials; and the gathering of data from court, police, government, school, and newspaper records in both Canada and the United States.
I have gathered together Yvonne’s words, as given in the present text, as she and I agreed, from various sources: largely her seventeen black prison notebooks, her letters to me, her comments on official records and documents, her statements to police, my notes of our conversations in person or on the telephone, numerous audiotapes. She has a natural gift of language, which at any moment will follow a detail and widen into incident, story, often humour. This was at first sometimes confusing, even disorienting, until I recognized that her thinking was often circular, revolving around a given subject, and her writing almost oral in the sense that I had to catch the tone of her inflection to understand exactly how the incidents she was remembering connected; where the expanding images or even parables with which she tried to explain herself were leading. These qualities can only be fully appreciated when talking with Yvonne face to face, but I hope this book will give its readers a good flavour of such a conversation.
What is remarkable and enlightening is how Yvonne’s powers of writing have expanded during her time in prison. Her first letter to me (November, 1992, quoted at length in the first chapter) was as chatty as her talk still is; her formal education could, at best, barely be called erratic and ended in Grade Eight, but even in the earliest of her writing that I have seen she had a profound ability to capture an astute perception with words. For example, during her trial in March, 1991, she handed to her lawyer a long analysis of a relative, which included this comment:
“She is a woman of many faces.… You know, the only feelings you get from her is one of her faces. One of her strong feelings is fear, anger. And she has a tongue like a knife in your heart.”
Reading has helped her think and write. By 1998, after years of reading widely and deeply—including the works of Carl Jung, some of whose books she read and re-read while making copious notes—and thousands of pages of writing—by pen, typewriter, computer—Yvonne’s imagistic insights have widened into longer, much more coherent explorations and descriptions. The written language of her perceptions and her natural oral story-telling ability have grown immensely, to become acute, distinctive, and often beautiful.
The selection, compiling, and arrangement of events and details in this book were done in a manner the two authors believe to be honest and accurate. Public documents are quoted selectively, but with every attempt at fairness and accuracy.