Author: Joseph Boyden
Format: Paperback, 104 pages
Publisher: Hamish Hamiton, a division of Penguin Random House Canada
Pub Date: October 18, 2016
Summary of Publisher:
An Ojibwe boy runs away from a North Ontario Indian School, not realizing just how far away home is. Along the way he’s followed by Manitous, spirits of the forest who comment on his plight, cajoling, taunting, and ultimately offering him a type of comfort on his difficult journey back to the place he was so brutally removed from.
Written by Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author Joseph Boyden and beautifully illustrated by acclaimed artist Kent Monkman, Wenjack is a powerful and poignant look into the world of a residential school runaway trying to find his way home.
- From Goodreads
Wenkack by Joseph Conrad, is a small-length novella that packs a big, social punch with its imaginative retelling of the microcosmic story of Chenie Wenjack, of which the book is named.
It tells in a simple, stark narrative, the voice of an Aboriginal boy who attempts escape from a residential school with two other boys, following a secret path known only to those children who have attempted escape before.
As Chenie ventures his journey toward escape, Manitous, spirits of animals in the forest, accompany him as witnesses and alternative narrators, which guide him and his story along its way.
Though the book is only 104 pages and its narrative simple and plain, the weight of the story is a stark reminder of a dark part of Canadian history where Aboriginal children were taken from their homes against their will and forced into the inclusion of the residential school system with the intention of forcing full assimilation and eventually cultural genocide.
Readers are given first-hand insight into the terrorizing cruelty Aboriginal children had to face at the hands of their oppressors through Chenie’s narrative and mixed dialogue; the inevitability to speak English and yet intentionally attempt at self-preservation and to retain his original language in secret as a means of ensuring the survival of his Aboriginal culture.
The book touches on the types of abuse that Aboriginal children suffered while kept in residential schools, from being forced to speak only English and learn and practice Christianity, to being cruelly punished.
Punishment included different forms of abuse that were either enforced singularly or at the same time: from being forced to strip down naked in front of clergy, teachers, and/or peers; to being struck in the face or whipped until there were visible lashes; to being locked away in a cold basement for an indefinite amount of time; to being sexually abused.
If Indigenous children were not able to tolerate or survive such punishment, many children fell to the misfortune of disease, more abuse, exposure, or accidents, which led to an early death, while many of these abusive incidents and deaths themselves were intentionally not recorded.
The tone of the Manitous’ voices may have seemed somewhat indifferent, but were actually rather intimate in their witness of Chenie and his difficult journey towards what he had hoped to be his final escape.
From the crow to the hummingbird, to owl, and pike, spider, wood tick, beaver, snow goose, rabbit, and lynx—the manitous evolved as Chenie’s journey moved forward, emphasizing the interconnectedness of all things, animals, and humans—and the great connection the Indigenous people have with nature.
While the book is a strong testament to the sufferings of the Indigenous children who suffered the oppression practiced in residential schools, and in particular, the story of Chenie Wenjack, I would have enjoyed seeing a longer narrative that perhaps shares a deeper look into the life of a boy like Chenie—a detailed narrative of how he was taken from his family and what specific things occurred to him and others while living in a residential school, what friends he made, and how his suffering eventually compelled him to make the decision to attempt escape.
The book is an important document to shine a light on the injustices that Indigenous peoples have suffered and a blunt reminder of the dark part of our Canadian history—one we must be mindful to rectify and ensure not to repeat.
As always, Joseph Boyden, is a remarkable writer, one who writes with a clear and concise voice, one who moves its readers to empathy, and a vivid understanding of his characters’ predicaments and drives. He is a favourite Canadian author and an important ambassador of the First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people.
And this is certainly an important Canadian book to add to anyone’s shelf.
Note: A portion of proceeds of the book, Wenjack, will be donated to Camp Onakawana, a Northern Ontario camp for First Nations youth. I encourage you to pick up your copy today.
Characters: 3 stars
Plot: 3 stars
Language/Narrative: 3.5 stars
Dialogue: 3.5 stars
Pacing: 3.5 stars
Cover Design: 3 stars
About the Author:
He grew up in Willowdale, North York, Ontario and attended the Jesuit-run Brebeuf College School. Boyden’s father Raymond Wilfrid Boyden was a medical officer renowned for his bravery, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and was the highest-decorated medical officer of World War II.
Boyden, of Irish, Scottish and Métis heritage, writes about First Nations heritage and culture. Three Day Road, a novel about two Cree soldiers serving in the Canadian military during World War I, is inspired by Ojibwa Francis Pegahmagabow, the legendary First World War sniper. Boyden’s second novel, Through Black Spruce follows the story of Will, son of one of the characters in Three Day Road. He has indicated in interviews that the titles are part of a planned trilogy, the third of which is forthcoming.
He studied creative writing at York University and the University of New Orleans, and subsequently taught in the Aboriginal Student Program at Northern College. He divides his time between Louisiana, where he and his wife, Amanda Boyden, are writers in residence, and Northern Ontario.
- From Goodreads
You can connect with Joseph Boyden on Twitter.