After meeting Joseph Boyden in June, at the Celebrating Canada’s Indigenous Writers Event, I have been looking forward to his latest book. Wenjack is a novella that is a “pocket-sized” book with a striking black and white drawings of the spirit animals which followed Chanie Wenjack in the fictional story based on his escape from the residential school. Despite its’ small size, the book shares a large impact on readers who consider the terrible legacy of residential schools.
Chanie had been removed from his family two years prior. After having his name changed, being punished for his indigenous language and suffering abuse, he ran away with two older boys. He was slower moving and coughing up blood which was typical of tuberculosis, a common infection in residential school settings. It started out as a warm fall day as young Chanie followed the boys to their Uncle’s home. His plans were to continue on his journey to his own home, especially since he was not welcome at the Uncle’s.
The real Chanie knew that his family lived along the railroad tracks. What he did not know was that while they did live along the tracks, they lived 600 km along the tracks! He began his journey only to die of exposure. After being forced to attend residential schools for 2 years, he finally returned to his family – in a casket.
Boyden’s story is told from the perspective of Chanie and from his spirit guides, the 12 animals that are depicted in each chapter of the story. It is a creative version of Chanie Wenjack’s true experience which is a dreadful part of the Canadian history. This is a novella that EVERY high school student in Canada should read as part of their history curriculum to understand the experience of residential schools and the lasting impact that remains on indigenous families.
This story provides a starting point for learning more about indigenous history and residential schools which had a goal of assimilation. These schools were built across Canada and included the Mohawk Institute, also known as “the Mush Hole”, here in Brantford. This building is now the Woodland Cultural Centre which operated as residential school from 1831 to 1971.
Joseph Boyden is one of my favourite authors and I would recommend this quick read as well as his other novels: The Orenda, Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce. I can’t help but repost this picture of me with “the trickster” this June: