Girl Gone Reading: With a Closed Fist, Growing up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood

Updated: Sep 4, 2019

Originally published in the Albany Times Union, June 2, 2017. Republished with updates for where to purchase.

I was in the middle of reading something mindless, probably having to do with the supernatural, probably the third book in some series when David, a friend on Facebook, told me I should read a book he had recently finished. He had never recommended anything to me before so I figured I should look it up. Once I saw the cover and read the summary, I knew he had been paying attention to random shit I either post on my personal social media account or comments I've made in public areas.

The book is titled With a Closed Fist, Growing up in Canada's toughest Neighbourhood by Kathy Dobson. I was in a location where WiFi was pretty wonky but I tried to download it anyway. Only half the book came through before it stopped. I read as much as I could and when I went to sleep, I plugged in my e-reader to charge and left the WiFi connected. When I woke up the full book was there and I didn't move for the next six hours except to make tea. Really. The book was published in 2011 but it seems to be gaining a bit of popularity here in the states. I hope with all of my heart that this blog helps that along because it's an important story to everyone regardless of nationality, color, or financial situation.

If you read my blog in the Books section of the TU, you already know a few things about me. I grew up about 90 minutes from Montreal on this side (New York) of the border. I was raised by a single Mom and grew up with three siblings. I lived in the 'project', my town's state housing authority, and when I was growing up there in the mid-70's and 80's, it was definitely the 'toughest neighborhood' in town. For the author, her neighborhood was Point St. Charles. As I was reading it, I had questions for Ms. Dobson and I wrote them down. I reached out to her on social media and she graciously accepted my message.

I had discovered something rare, and that is an author who speaks in my voice. Not in the way that I write, but what I could write. What I am writing. By the end of the book, I would have sworn to anyone that Ms. Dobson and I are related. While there are differences in our stories, the similarities were enough to give me pause (and goosebumps) more times than I can count. But this story is about her life and maybe more - her Mom's.

With a Closed Fist is a memoire about what it's like growing up in poverty - true poverty. It's about the desire of a Mom who wants better for her children and she fights to make that happen, sometimes to the extreme, but fight she does. Her goal is for her daughters to attend the schools where the wealthy children go. There is a huge discrepancy in the books used, the quality of teachers, etc. and her Mom is determined to get them in. And then she does.

What happens next is not a fairy tale of clean books, great food, and happy experiences. It all goes horribly wrong for Ms. Dobson and she isn't afraid to tell her truth of what happened down to the very real language and nitty-gritty physical assaults experienced in her neighborhood and at school. She's incredibly honest with her own behavior and attitude during this time in her life. (Which can be a challenge - memories are fickle and sometimes you have to look closely at your own to get to the truth and that isn't easy.)

I could go on about the story and tell you what happens and how it ends, but obviously I'm not going to. I want you to read it. Buy it or download it in the morning and you won't stop until you're done. I encourage my Canadian friends, the friends I grew up with at home in Massena, and anyone who would like to expand their belief on what they perceive as poverty in Canada and little places like my hometown.

Visit Kathy's website to buy the book.

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