WENJACK Written by Joseph Boyden
2016; 118 Pages (Hamish Hamilton)
Genre: literary fiction, historical fiction, canadian, canada, novella
Chanie Wenjack, a young Ojibwe boy is taken from from his family and put into a residential school in Ontario, Canada. While there he is bullied and abused by those that are supposed to care for him. Despite the danger, he decides to runaway with two fellow “students”. Later, he would be found dead. Wenjack’s death would lead to an inquest that would reveal the truth behind residential schools.
I first learned about Chanie Wenjack and residential schools when I was in elementary school. Wenjack’s story has always stuck with me as I was about the same age and my experience with school was so different. As I grew and learned more about Wenjack and residential schools, I have been sadden that this happened but more so that it took until the mid-1990s to get rid of residential schools. Canada has always had a rough history when it comes to people of colour. Japanese were put into internment camps during World War II, Chinese were given dangerous jobs to build the railroads in Canada, Indians (from India) were sent back to India because they were undesirable as citizens, etc. Whether the new government apologizes on the behalf of the old government at this point seems to be beside the point. It can not undo all the horrors that young Aboriginal children experience or give back their lives. At this point, learning from the past is the what will make a difference. If we learn from history and put in place measures that will prevent this from happening again will begin to honour their memory.
I picked up this novella last night and was transformed to another place and time. Boyden re-imagines Wenjack’s escape so beautifully, but will leave you heartbroken. Along the way on his journey Wenjack is followed along the way “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” (from Amazon). I find that this short novel reads like a long poem. It is beautiful and haunting in the images written by Boyden and hits you with the sad truth, time and again. I recommend this novel to every Canadian as this is a part of history, whether we want to accept it or not.