As the title indicates, this book is about the travels of two children, sisters, six and eight years old at the time of the telling. It’s a remarkable account, and one of the ways this novel is unique is that it’s told as a story within a story.
Nan is grandmother to eight-year-old Maddy. Although Nan is an established artist who has her own gallery in Vancouver, both she and her granddaughter are artists, an aspect that not only draws the two together but helps bind the story that unfolds.
Nan isn’t altogether certain that Maddy is old enough to hear the story—after all, it isn’t a happy one. Hers is another way of telling the terrible story that’s finally settling into the psyches of all of us who live in Canada, the story of children being ripped from their families and taken to residential school.
Nan’s story doesn’t give details about the actual school experience. Its focus is on the journey (over 1600 kilometres) the girls are taken on. While some aspects of it are made to seem like an adventure—seeing the ocean and the magnificence of glacier-laced mountains—it is always apparent that the sisters would prefer to be back at home.
By choosing the format of an ongoing story told within the course of her novel, author Wendy Proverbs is honouring the tradition of oral storytelling, so key to what we settlers are learning about Indigenous ways. And along the way she shares many pieces of knowledge, in this instance, about foraging for berries in which the girls “…were softly singing a Kaska song that Yanima [their mother] had taught them while berry picking. This song served a dual purpose in that it united them as a Kaska family and also ensured that bears knew they were there.”
Another lesson that comes through Nan’s stories concerns the importance of names.
In explaining the many changes that were made to place names, Nan tells Maddy and her friend Lucas, “Indigenous Peoples didn’t change their place names. They were changed without their consent. When European settlers began arriving, they couldn’t speak or understand Indigenous languages. They presumed English was better for everyone and gave traditional villages, rivers, mountains, and valleys English names. It was one of the many ways they started to take possession of lands that weren’t really theirs to take.”
Just as place names were changed, so too, Nan explains, the two sisters in the story had their names changed. While their real names, given to them by their father, were Mac-kinnay and Beep, when a priest first came to their village, he baptized many of the people there, including the girls, renaming them Agnes and Martha. Since neither girl liked these names, they gave themselves new ones of their own – Aggie and Mudgy. Only a few years later, when Aggie is eight (just like Maddy is), another priest arrives and takes the girls away, purportedly to a school where “ ‘They will learn to read and write and to worship our Almighty God.’ “
The route they must take from their home at Daylu, near the Yukon border of British Columbia, involves travel via rivers, lakes, truck and rail, and certainly isn’t a happy adventure. The priest doesn’t hesitate to punish them for small, innocent errors; a stop along the way involving nuns also sees the girls punished for actions as simple as picking berries. And though they consider trying to run away to their home, they learn that the distance is too far and the dangers too great.
The only problems I had with this book were in its layout. Illustrations introduce each chapter; while they are lovely, the images are always of an event that occurs later, or even near the end of those chapters. These would have been much more effective had they been placed more appropriately, in conjunction with the scenes depicted. I also found the Author’s Note, placed at the front of the book, to be misplaced – only because it summarizes so much of the book’s action – in effect serving as a serious spoiler.
I’m sure there will be readers who find it difficult to ‘hear’ some of the many lessons this book offers, especially anyone not yet accepting of the role the Catholic Church played in so many of these horrific reports of what amounted to sanctioned kidnapping. I for one, settler though I am, remain glad to see another account of the dreadful events that occurred in our country, especially when it’s told with such warmth and humanity.
Wendy Proverbs is an emerging Indigenous author of Kaska Dena descent. She holds a BA and MA in anthropology from the University of Victoria. Like thousands of Indigenous people across Canada, as an infant, she was caught in the sweeping scoop of Indigenous children taken from their birth families and was only reunited with biological family members as a young adult. She has acted as a community liaison with Indigenous communities and strives to help younger generations, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, learn more about their past.
- Publisher : Wandering Fox (Nov. 2 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 144 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1772033758
- ISBN-13 : 978-1772033755