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Wake the Stone Man by Carol McDougall
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Wake the Stone Man

by Carol McDougall

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"You asked me why I keep going back to that place and time. I keep going back because I need to say what I didn't say then. I’m sorry [ . . . ]I watched them hurt you and did nothing. I’m sorry.”

Wake the Stone Man is a novel in three parts—or “books”—which explores the development of a young artist in a small city in Northern Ontario. It is also a story of that same young woman’s growing awareness of the endemic racism of “white” society towards Canada’s First Peoples. Set in the fictional town of Fort McKay (modelled on Thunder Bay) on the northwest shore of Lake Superior, the novel opens in 1964, with 11-year-old Molly Bell walking her usual route to her weekly ballet lesson: past St. Mary’s School, a residential Indian school run by the Catholic Church. An Ojibway girl of about Molly’s age is struggling to climb over the chain-link fence that encloses the property, but a screeching nun catches up with her and whips a leather belt with a glinting silver buckle against the fence. Terrified, Molly flees on foot. Nakina, of course cannot. Like over a hundred other Aboriginal kids, some as young as four and five, she has been collected from one of many “Indian” communities along the railway tracks and has been forced to attend the school, which will christianize and “anglicize” her.

Two years later, Molly meets Nakina again when both begin attending the local high school. The girls become friends and Nakina (who now lives with a Dutch-Canadian, Christian family) spends lots of time at the Bell home, even travelling with the family to their summer camp on Loon Lake. Life, however, is difficult for Nakina. As a curvy young woman with an interest in clothes, Nakina is quite a physical contrast to skinny, tomboyish Molly. She gains unwanted attention and is brutally sexually assaulted in broad daylight. Molly witnesses part of this—but never speaks of it. When a waitress from a nearby eatery comes out into the street, Molly says her friend has had one of her epileptic seizures.The consequences of the assault, according to the mores of the time, require Nakina to disappear from Fort McKay for a while. When she returns to high school five months later, it is as though she’s never been away and nothing of any consequence has occurred. Only much later will the reader learn the full story of what happened to Nakina.

Molly who has a growing interest in photography and art, uses a small Brownie camera to capture her friend’s spirit and beauty in photos taken around town. In time, after accusations of stealing, being forced from a second foster home, and apparently turning to a life on the streets, Nakina disappears from Molly’s life. Haunted by one photograph that captures Nakina’s despondency and alienation, Molly will strive over the next several years to transform it into a work of art.

At the same time that Nakina is lost to her, Molly’s parents die in a tragic accident. She moves in with the family of another friend, Anna, until the end of high school. However, she has almost entirely given up on her plan to attend the Nova Scotia College of Art. She accepts a temporary position cataloging historical photographs at the local public library and comes across documents related to the Indian school (which is being demolished). She photocopies some of these to look at later, and, indeed, will have plenty of time to do so when she moves to an isolated cabin in the woods. Away from town, Molly sleeps, paints, skis, and is generally toughened both by the elements and by further loss. “Book Two” concludes with her decision to leave the bush. “Book Three” of the novel, the shortest of the novel’s sections, concerns Molly’s move to Halifax, her formal training as an artist, and her reunion with her old friend.

Carol McDougall has presented a powerful story here. Wake the Stone Man has “good bones”—that is, an essentially good plot. However, there are imperfections in the telling of it. First of all, there are problems with Molly’s first-person narration. The author's decision to have Molly perpetually swear and slang like a trooper--apparently to communicate her protagonist's tomboyish bluntness and unconventional ways--was not a good one. It’s not that I’m offended by the swearing; it's that it simply doesn't ring true. Rather than making Molly credible, the language distracts and seems entirely inconsistent with her stable, loving upbringing (which happens to include church going). Another problem is that Molly’s speech is often peppered with slang and idiomatic expressions that are more typical of the present day than of 40 or 50 years ago. I checked on the “first-use date” of a few of the expressions and found out, for example, that the saying “get your shit together” was first employed by James Baldwin in 1968. It would hardly have made it to northern Ontario and have been in common use there during the same period. Likewise, Molly’s saying that she’s “pretty anal” in her library cataloging job, just doesn't sound authentic. There are numerous other examples of this kind of thing.

Another thing that doesn't quite fit with the time depicted is the library photocopier. When Molly gains access to papers and photographs from the Indian residential school, she photocopies large numbers of them for later perusal. The problem here is that photocopiers were not commonly found in public libraries in the early 1970s. When they were, they were very expensive to use. It is hard to believe Molly would have carte blanche to reproduce dozens of documents. In Ontario schools, mimeograph or Gestetner machines were used into the early 1990s, and even as late as 2013 my school system was encouraging the use of a risograph machine (a cheaper digital duplicator) as it was easier on school budgets.

I had a few other bigger issues with the novel. I was a little uncomfortable with the melodramatic killing off of Molly’s parents so that the author could achieve certain ends. The removal of Mr. and Mrs. Bell provides Molly with money (from the sale of the house) and allows her to have an adventure—in part, a sort of dark night of the soul—out in the Canadian bush. Being isolated gives her time and space to paint as well as look over the fairly extensive residential school papers she has brought with her. However, the author’s decision to throw more sadness (the death of a child) into the stew was, in my opinion, not only unnecessary to the story but over the top—especially when the book was set to conclude with a tragic event.

These criticisms may sound persnickety. However, even apparently minor flaws can impact the sense of authenticity of historical fiction; they undermine its power. In the end, however, with a few reservations, I recommend Carol McDougall’s sensitive and well-researched novel. It is a worthy addition to literature about Indian residential schools in Canada. The author has been respectful about issues of cultural appropriation. As a Canadian of apparently Western European descent, she has written from that place--in the voice of a white girl-- and told a meaningful story. ( )
  fountainoverflows | Apr 26, 2017 |
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