Sunday, February 25, 2024

Book Review: Her Name Was Margaret: Life and Death on the Streets

Title: Her Name Was Margaret: Life and Death on the Streets
Author: Denise Davey
Publisher: Wolsak & Wynn
Publication Date: 2021

Denise Davey’s award-winning Her Name Was Margaret is not an easy read.

Up front, it tells deeply unsettling truths about the intersection of poverty, mental illness and systemic misogyny in Canada. A deeply affecting piece of nonfiction writing, Davey opens her book from the beginning of her encounter with Margaret Jacobson, a homeless woman who would go on to change the author in a profound way. Davey first met Margaret in 1993, two years before she died on the streets of Hamilton, when working as the social issues reporter at the Hamilton Spectator. She relates the difficulty in writing about the homeless epidemic for readers, on quoting studies and statistics that fail to convey the real face of the human tragedy. When she met Margaret, it seems she was able to put a face to the problem. Two years later, when Margaret died, Davey began the arduous task of connecting the dots of Margaret’s troubled life to tell her story.

It is a brutal story. . .one that every Hamiltonian must read.

Davey is meticulous in piecing together the evidence of Margaret’s life, starting with her birth to a couple of Pentecostal missionaries living in Barbados. Following information gleaned from exhaustive research into letters and diary entries, Davey paints a portrait of a talented, optimistic young girl raised amid a harsh, religious household that refused to understand her mental health issues as anything more than a refusal to accept God’s grace. Margaret’s condition gets worse even when the family returns to Canada, and she is admitted into a steady stream of institutions. Throughout this puzzle of Margaret’s early life, it is evident that society’s ignorance and fear of mental illness along with her gender created a perfect storm that eventually left her to fend for herself.

The result is a woman who’s life eventually became a “free fall” into homelessness, poverty and abuse. It makes for a sobering read, especially when Davey uses the story of Margaret to expertly weave aforementioned statistics and studies on mental illness and poverty for readers to see. At times, it hits like a machine gun fire of grim statistics and I found myself taken aback by the stark realities they paint. Davey’s real skill, however, is in unearthing information we simply might not even know and integrating it into a story rooted in Margaret’s plight.

That said, as difficult as the facts are to digest, the book never fails to remind us that this was a woman of strength and spirit. Margaret had many friends and supporters who wanted to see her thrive or, at the very least, safe. From shelter and healthcare workers to close friends, Davey has tracked down a veritable chorus of people who knew and cared about Margaret. And it is the voice of this chorus that demonstrates the truly human side of mental illness and poverty that is often forgotten when we look at the problem of homelessness.

Even after Margaret’s death, Davey maintains a focus on her life and her legacy. She relates the story of tracking down Margaret’s son–who had been given up for adoption just after birth–and his own struggles with mental illness. She also follows the wake of Margaret’s death across the wider support community and illustrates how, in some ways, this particular loss was something of a watershed to those who tried to save her. Though there are slight beacons of light in Margaret’s story, they’re fleeting. For example, Davey mentions how many support workers smiled when they saw Margaret’s signature strut, and referred to her as “Princess” Margaret. But it is hard to smile when the reality is that Margaret suffered through so much misfortune and abuse.

Davey’s book reinforces a sad reality that haunted me long after I set it down. Our society venerates progress, power and hard work, such that those who fall behind or need help are left to their own devices. As Davey says, “[Margaret] taught me [the homeless] are not there by choice but because of a complicated series of events that can be traced to a broken system and, too often, to a broken mind.”

Her Name Was Margaret won both Best Non-Fiction Book Award and the Kerry Schooley Award at last year’s Hamilton Literary Awards. But that’s not why Hamiltonians should pick it up. The fact of the matter is that homelessness in Hamilton has only gotten worse in the decades since Margaret’s tragic death. The numerous tent cities and city shelter wait lists is evidence of the urgent need to take action on this epidemic. . .especially now that the season has turned cold once more.

That’s why Davey’s book is required reading for every one of us in this city where Margaret also made her home.

Stephen Near
Stephen Near
Stephen Near is a freelance writer and educator living in Hamilton. He is a graduate of York University (BFA), the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (B. Ed) and the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. He works at Mohawk and Humber College and is a member of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada and an alumnus of both the Sage Hill Writing Experience and the Banff Centre. Stephen's plays have been produced at the Hamilton Fringe Festival and Theatre Aquarius and he is completing his first fiction novel.

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