From Boy with a Problem
Halifax writer Chris Benjamin wastes no time getting to the emotional core of his story in “Arsonists,” the first line of which reads, “Today I am ending the life of my grandmother, who raised me, whose life force was incendiary.” Even setting aside the potency of a story that opens with its first-person narrator having committed to euthanize her grandmother, a reader must pause over the word “incendiary.” In context, this is easily taken as a metaphor – a baleful cliché applied to a woman with a “fiery personality.” But the story‘s title implies a different reading, and sure enough, by the time the end comes around a scant five pages later, the term will have been actualized, at least potentially.
The situation Benjamin provides in his story – the first-person narrator and her partner, Ana, paying respects to the old woman before injecting her with a lethal dose – is fraught in its own right, and is lent a greater poignancy via the impassioned first-person narration. We are given a sketch of the relationship between granddaughter and grandmother – the latter, confined to her deathbed, does not speak except in flashback – by way of a succession of brief moments. These include the grandmother insisting to her boss she needs an hour away from the office to deliver her granddaughter’s Halloween costume to the girl’s school and a glimpse of the two at the zoo, where Grandma “explained the fecal processes of the charismatic mega-faun.”
What initially seems a simply humorous aside takes on a greater emotional heft in the following lines, when the narrator makes reference to her own issues with excretion: “[W]hen my own fecal process failed, she explained the workings of the suppository to distract me as she inserted it then cleansed the consequences when it worked oh so quickly.” Here we have a relationship in all its messy intimacy; the closeness of the bond between grandmother and granddaughter – the former raised the latter having wrested her away from the girl’s alcoholic mother – makes the decision to go through with a mercy killing that much more agonizing.
But although Benjamin’s brief story begins as a melancholy tale of a woman determined to end her grandmother’s pain, it metamorphoses quickly into a narrative about collective guilt and complicity in historic injustice. The narrator recalls her grandmother in her later years talking about “the little girls“ and expressing dismay verging on despair at half-formed memories. The granddaughter, who as a younger woman thought her older relative was confused or referring to her in obscure terms, slowly comes to understand that Grandma’s true subject is the girls at a residential school where she once taught. Benjamin spares his reader details of the severe mistreatment the Indigenous girls went through (save for a reference to “being forced to eat their own vomit”), but the grandmother’s upset at her role in the school’s operation bleeds through the second-hand narration.
The older woman’s epiphany about her complicity in a genocidal system of abuse and racial erasure has caused her significant pain in later years; the implication is that her undertaking to care for her granddaughter was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to atone for the sins of her past. The two things are explicitly linked in the narrative: we are told that on the day Grandma rescued the narrator “from [her] mother’s drunken chaos,” the residential school burned down. The fire appears to have been set intentionally, and the narrator recalls what her grandmother whispered to her at the time: “They must be happy to see it burn.”
Grandma’s desire to assist the less fortunate is clear, though she recognizes that good intentions cannot absolve her from her part in a hateful, racist system. “I wanted to help the needy, to get my hands dirty,” the narrator remembers her grandmother saying. “I certainly did that.” It was not until much later that the narrator understood what the older woman meant and made the connection between her grandmother’s pervasive sense of guilt and the notion of her getting her hands dirty.
There are ironies aplenty throughout “Arsonists” – the granddaughter wonders reasonably what the point is of sterilizing a needle that is about to proffer a lethal injection – but the grandmother’s remorse seems sincere. Or, at least, it seems so through the eyes of her adoring granddaughter, whose perspective is in the end the only one available to us. The narrator remains grateful to her grandmother for saving her from the clutches of her destructive addict of a mother, but there is also the recognition that the kindness show to her cannot mitigate cruelty to others. She hopes that her grandmother treated the Indigenous girls at the residential school well, as though that will assuage some of the guilt passed down to her as a result of her family’s complicity in atrocity.
She also hopes that her grandmother was responsible for burning down the schoolhouse. Whether she set the fire or not is a question that is ultimately left open, and the plural title suggests there could be more than one solution to this mystery. What Benjamin offers is not a clear-cut story about guilt and redemption so much as a sidelong glance at the corrosive effects of complicity and generational remorse. When asked directly whether the Indigenous families affected by the residential school hate the local whites, the grandmother deflects the question, replying that they are mostly upset with the church. The response is disingenuous and the persistence of the grandmother’s psychic pain indicates that she doesn’t really believe it to be true.
There is one other possible reading for the title. As a plural, it might also tilt in the direction of implicating the entire system that created the residential schools in the first place. Intentionally burning the school down only brings the destruction full circle: the original flame was lit by the prejudice, greed, and hatred of the people who set up the institution in the first place, and all those whose association with it leave them with blood on their hands.