You might think “Wenjack” is the name of a bird, or some other animal, like I did. It’s not, it’s a surname. Chanie Wenjack, one of many First Nations children who were forcibly enrolled at residential schools, was the first to draw national attention to those schools’ practices back in 1966.
Joseph Boyden, one of Canada’s most celebrated authors, who is of Irish, Scottish, and Anishinaabe descent, writes Wenjack delicately. He treads through history here and for that reason I believe he picks poetic yet respectful narrative perspectives. He trades back and forth from Chanie’s point of view to different animals’ points of view. A fish, a rabbit, a lynx, an owl. He gets the perspective across smartly; he does it in the way one can describe themselves by describing something else. For example, the owl describes Chanie from high up above, and thinks and acts wisely. In Chanie’s own chapters, where he narrates the story, the writing changes. Where the owl’s grammar is correct, Chanie’s is weaker and child-like, interspersed with words from his native language.
Chanie and two other boys decide to abandon life at the residential school on a whim, with only the knowledge that children have tried and failed to escape, and that there may or may not be a friendly uncle waiting to take them. The trouble is, Chanie’s young. He’s nine. Not only that, he’s not actually friends with the two other boys. They tolerate him only to the point of giving him some semblance of an idea of where they’ve gone. They’re in better shape and so they run ahead. Chanie must look for broken branches, and maimed leaves to find his way to them. When they finally reach the uncle, after many chapters aided by the thoughts of the forest’s animals, and worries that the “fish belly men” — the authorities at their school — trail them, the uncle tells Chanie there’s only enough space for the other two boys, and not for him. He has a choice. He can try and find his way alone, or he can turn back to the school, where he knows they will abuse him sexually and violently.
In his post-script, Boyden writes from the perspective of a disenfranchised First Nations person. He uses words like “our” when he describes the process by which the ruling authorities tried to destroy First Nations culture.
Frankly, it’s uncomfortable in Chanie’s head, and so Boyden’s writing is effective. He accomplishes what he means to do: create a narrative and a lesson that teaches us to learn about our country’s blind spot — the mistreatment of First Nations people.
Note: I want to point out Gord Downie, the singer for the Tragically Hip, created The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack fund. You can visit their site here.