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Wenjack by Joseph Boyden

Wenjack (2016)

by Joseph Boyden

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Wenjack by Joseph Boyden is the story of Chanie Wenjack, a young Aboriginal boy who ran away from the residential school he was placed in and died a lonely death at the side of the railroad tracks he was following in an effort to get home to his family. Chanie was twelve years old, and although he didn’t know it, his home was hundreds of miles away.

Although Wenjack is an emotional tale, but I believe I was more affected by the graphic novel, The Secret Path by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire which tells the same story. There was something so very touching about the wordless beauty of that graphic novel that totally sweep me away. Of course, I have also just recently read the excellent Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese which prepared me for this sad story.

When Chanie died in October of 1966, he was only one child of the thousands who also didn’t come through their experience with the residential school system. Illness, abuse, and accidents took many of these children’s lives, but it was no accident that saw a graveyard placed beside everyone of these schools. Chanie’s death did pave the way for the first public inquiry into residential schools in Canada although it still took another 30 years for the system to be totally shut down. Wenjack is a valuable read and an emotional story of one small boy’s attempt to escape the abuse and horror. ( )
1 vote DeltaQueen50 | Sep 19, 2017 |
This is a beautifully written book that, at first glance, looks like Beatrix Potter for adults. It's small, and filled with animal drawings. But it is a much darker story than Peter Rabbit; it tells of one Ojibwe boy's attempt to run away from the abuses of a residential school for First Nations children in Canada. A variety of animals as well as Chanie, the boy, tell this story escape and struggle on an impossible journey based on the experience of Chanie Wenjack in 1966, two years after he had been forcibly taken from his home to the school as a nine-year-old. Weaving native language and traditions into the story makes gives the feeling of authenticity, but recent questions about the author's claim to an indigenous heritage leaves me feeling uncertain. I appreciate the beauty of the language but wonder how the story might have been told differently from an Ojibwe voice. I love how the animals are incorporated into the story-telling, but is that authentic to the culture or is it a stylistic choice, maybe even a stereotyped choice? In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Boyden said that he hoped this book would be read by high school and college students. If it were to be read, given the recent uproar, I imagine the discussion would focus more on cultural appropriation as opposed to the dark history of residential schools.
  athertonl | Jul 16, 2017 |
This book is ostensibly about the bad treatment of Indigenous children by the Canadian government. The protagonist, Chanie ("Charlie") Wenjack, is running away from residential school, and at risk of spoilers, I'll say that the book doesn't have a happy ending. The horrors of the residential schools are well-documented and worth reading about, whether in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or in survivor memoirs like The Education of Augie Merasty. This is an important topic for Canadians to read about, and Boyden's short novella offers a well-written fictionalized account that includes the interesting perspectives of the manitous, spirits whose viewpoints alternate in chapters with Chanie's own.

And yet. I couldn't help being turned off by Boyden's portrayal of the other Indigenous people in this story, and that's a pretty serious problem. The villain in this story should be the Canadian government, and the white settlers represented by that government. There is one brief and horrifying scene of sexual abuse by one of the adults in charge of the residential school, but the book somehow manages to present the only Indigenous male as almost equally culpable in Chanie's death: when Chanie and his two friends escape from the residential school and make it to the home of the friends' uncle, said uncle soon turns Chanie away. It's only after reaching the presumed safety of an Indigenous home that Chanie perishes, because they just don't have room for him.

Now, this book is based on a true story. Boyden doesn't mention in his afterword which aspects are real and which are fictionalized, so as soon as I finished reading I looked up the 1967 Maclean's article that first brought Chanie's death to public attention. I wanted to know the details of Chanie's encounter with his friends' uncle differed in the two accounts.

In Boyden's (fictionalized) account, the three boys arrive at the house, where they receive food (while the uncle himself goes hungry) and promptly go to sleep. In the morning, the uncle takes his nephews to his trapline, and says that there isn't enough room for Chanie in the canoe. During the night, he's told his wife to get rid of Chanie: "Your job is to send the stranger away. Someone broke something in him. We don't have tools to fix it." But Chanie independently decides to go on foot to the cabin by the trapline, and reaches it before they do. When the others arrive, the uncle doesn't even let him inside; he immediately tells him to go on his way to the school. "If you travel quick, you will beat most of the weather."

In the Maclean's (non-fiction) account, the boys stayed for several days at the uncle's house before he took his nephews up to the trapline (the comment about lack of space in the canoe is based on the factual account). When Chanie arrived on foot at the trapping cabin, he ate inside with the others; even though there was barely any food, it was shared with him. Everyone left in the morning. Chanie was told that he would have to walk back because there was no room in the canoe, but he said that was going to go home to his father.

For me, one of the key passages in the Maclean's article is this one: "No one told Charlie to go. Nobody told him to stay either. But as the days passed Charlie got the message." This is a pretty sharp contrast to Boyden's account, where Chanie was forced to leave the day after he arrived.

And while I was reading this, I was thinking of Alexandra Shimo's Invisible North, a contemporary account of life on a Northern Ontario reserve. Indigenous people there are still living in horrible conditions, imposed upon them by the Canadian government: insufficient food, lack of sanitation, etc. And yet Shimo observed in her time there that even when they were living 18 to a house, with children sleeping in shifts on the floor because space was so tight, nobody went homeless. People took care of each other as much as their limited resources allowed. Again, it's a pretty sharp contrast to Boyden's fictionalized account.

And of course, I'm reading all this in the context of the recent controversy surrounding Boyden's Indigenous ancestry. He describes himself as "a white kid from Willowdale with native roots", and he achieved fame as an Indigenous author writing about Indigenous topics. The fact that he grew up in white suburban privilege might have been enough of a problem in terms of receiving awards intended for Indigenous authors, but it was compounded by the fact that investigations into his genealogy failed to uncover any Indigenous ancestors. He once said he was Métis, a claim that he later retracted, and that was apparently born out of the misconception that "Métis" meant "anyone with mixed European/Indigenous heritage". I'm not particularly bothered by the details of this discussion—I imagine he has some distant Indigenous ancestors somewhere—but it has made me more aware and skeptical of his role as the voice of Indigenous culture. The key point for me is that regardless of who his great-grandparents were, the majority of his ancestors were European and he had a typical Toronto upbringing.

So there's the nagging question of, Is this the person who should be telling me about Indigenous life? And when he takes a non-fiction story and fictionalizes it in a way that makes some of the Indigenous characters look worse than the facts would suggest, that grows from a niggling concern to a potentially serious problem that prevented me from fully appreciating the book. It's a short, well-written story about an important topic, but I personally wasn't able to overcome my concerns about its authenticity. ( )
1 vote _Zoe_ | Jul 2, 2017 |
This is only a small look into the tragedy hidden and ignored for so long behind a wall of shame and indifference. ( )
  rastamandj | Jun 14, 2017 |
Review to come. ( )
  ZaraD.Garcia-Alvarez | Jun 6, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
A spellbinding account of Chanie Wenjack, the Anishinaabe boy who died escaping a residential school...novelist Joseph Boyden has written Wenjack, a novella that deftly suffuses Chanie’s tragedy with traditional Aboriginal beliefs.
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Gimik-wenda-ina? Do you remember? I remember, me.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0735233381, Paperback)

The acclaimed author of The Orenda gives us a powerful and poignant look into the last moments of Charlie Wenjack, a residential school runaway trying to find his way home.

An Ojibwe boy runs away from a North Ontario Indian School. Too late, he realizes 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 15 Aug 2016 15:39:41 -0400)

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