Having Faith in the Polar Girls’ Prison is a moving story about a 15-year-old girl who is locked in a prison with her premature baby (named Faith). Narrated by Trista in a stream-of-consciousness style, she tells her past through memories while living in her current situation. Her narrative style and speech shows the reader her weaknesses and mental instability. At times Trista is barely coherent, or downright crude, and other times she is so lyrical in her speech that it’s quite beautiful.

Against the stark and haunting landscape of Canada’s Far North, fifteen-year-old Trista chronicles the events of her life from her room in the Polar Girls’ Prison. Caught in the decline of sexual abuse, drunkenness, and failed motherhood, Trista tries to make sense of her past, especially the events that led her to jail. With heartfelt compassion and rare insight, the stunning new voice of debut novelist Cathleen With lends light to the hardships and suffering of the teenage girls and clash of cultures in this remote region that has never before been represented in literature.

From the publisher, Penguin Group Canada

Having Faith is quite an emotional story that sticks with you. Trista, and many of the other Polar Girls, have encountered molestation, rape, drugs, alcohol-abuse, and both physical and mental abuse in their young lives. This is something that I can barely fathom and Trista tells her story with such honesty that, despite her confusions, you become very sympathetic and connected with her, her daughter Faith, and the other Polar Girls.

“The title of the novel refers to Trista’s daughter, Faith, born the same night Trista commits a horrific crime and is taken into custody. Her profound attachment to Faith and her desire to give her a better life than she has had is a mantra repeated throughout the novel — at least partially because she cannot face the fact that Faith will inevitably be removed from her care.”

I had the pleasure of working with Cathleen With at the BC Book Prizes. Last Sunday was the Gala and hearing Cathleen With’s acceptance speech for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize was amazing. She was so flattered and a bit shocked, she even said she felt like she was “crashing a party” to be in a room with so many from the BC publishing community. She dedicated her win to all the kids of the Mackenzie River delta and (if I understand correctly) she plans to donate some of her award money to them.

I had a chance after the Gala to congratulate Cathleen and tell me how much Trista stuck with me. She was so happy and ecstatic, she mentioned that she couldn’t wait to tell Jolene, a girl from up north that had inspired the book. Cathleen worked as a teacher in Inuvik in the Northwest Territories and it was her experiences up North that inspired Having Faith.

Full disclosure: I read a copy of the book that we received in the office from the publisher. This situation did not affect my review in any way, shape or form.