Graphic Novel Review: The Outside Circle

This gorgeous and gritty graphic novel will educate everyone, not just indigenous Canadians, about institutional racism and other topics.

The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson, illustrated by Kelly Mellings.
House of Anansi, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2015.
Adult graphic novel, 120 pages.
CODE’s 2016 Burt Award for First Nation, Inuit and Métis Literature Winner.
Not leveled.

Pete and his younger brother Joey only have each other and their drug-addicted mother to get through their violent, gritty urban life.  But when their mother’s boyfriend pushes them too far, Pete ends up in jail and Joey in foster care.  What will happen to their family?  Can Pete’s gang become their new family?

The Outside Circle

This book is about Canadian urban aboriginals.  Because I am American and not indigenous, I was surprised by the way it sucked me in as we read about generational poverty and the systematic dehumanization and institutionalized racism that had affected Pete’s entire family.  So much of what I read applies to so many other groups, and reading about Pete and his family was an easy way to absorb how these things can alter a family for generations at a time.

The program Pete enters aims to use restorative justice methods and training about Native cultures and history to rehabilitate First Nations prisoners.  Given that I’m shockingly ignorant about Native culture in general, I was able to learn a lot from this graphic novel, and even though I’ve been learning about things like the boarding schools and the generational effect of foster care for a long time now, reading Pete and Joey’s story really helped it stick in my head.

Even though some aspects differ in America (we have the Indian Child Welfare Act which gives the tribes control over child welfare as a gesture of reparation, which looks very different depending on the tribe and child), I still found this book to be highly relevant and useful.  Every foster parent should read this before placement, especially if they accept Native children – it would help increase understanding and avoid drama if American children are removed from foster families to be with their tribe.

The beginning follows Pete and Joey more or less evenly.  Joey’s experiences are, sadly, reality for many children.  However, after a while the narrative focuses solely on Pete as he, and we, lose touch with what is going on in Joey’s life.  The outside circle of the title focuses on the concept that native men protected their children and women, but also the irony that now they might be the ones their families need protecting from.

The Outside Circle rehabilitation pages resized
Two pages from the rehabilitation center portion of The Outside Circle.

The group studies the historical events that led many of them to the places they are now in, as well as techniques for healing and moving forward in their lives.  Like real gang members, Pete does not instantly separate from his old way of life.  It is a gradual process with backtracking and moments of anger and rage.  The reader experiences tension because the stakes are so high, and we simply don’t know who will survive.

This is an #ownvoice graphic novel on two fronts.  Author LaBoucane-Benson is a Metis woman with two decades of experience working with and researching the program depicted.  This experience shows on every page of the story and thankfully illustrator Mellings was willing to follow her direction and did extensive research to make this story as accurate as possible in the drawing as well.

The drawing was magnificent.  I’ve read this book two times now (most fiction I read twice before reviewing, to ensure I catch as much as possible), but expect to notice more aspects of the illustration on subsequent re-reads.  For example, my first time through I didn’t notice that the first 30 or 40 pages have a black background, which abruptly changes to white when Pete transfers to the rehabilitation center but turns back to black during other dark points later in the story.

The only complaint I had about the artwork was that it was a little too dark at points, making it difficult to read in poor lighting.  However, this stylistic choice made sense for the story and conveyed emotion.  The mask imagery also threw me at first, but was integral to Pete’s character.

The Outside Circle mask page cropped resized
One of the masks in The Outside Circle.

The author, illustrator, and publisher must have worked closely to bring this book to fruition in such a beautiful and classy manner.  This was my first book from House of Anansi Press, but looking at their website, they have an eclectic catalog with numerous diverse titles for children and adults.  Overall, I feel Canada is more open to publishing and promoting indigenous literature than America.

There are a few twists in the story.  One I was surprised about (although perhaps should have expected), while another I saw coming very early on.

Because of the graphic violence, drug use, incarceration, gangs, sexual violence, and swearing in this book, I would not generally recommend it for teens.  It may be appropriate in some situations, or for individual teens mature enough to absorb the message without mimicking Pete’s poor choices.  All adults should read this book.  Recommended.

Huge thank you to Nazahet for sending me this book for the first quarter #ReadDiverse2017 prize!

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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