By: Joseph Boyden
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
Shortlisted for the 2017 OLSN Northern Lit Award
An Ojibwe boy runs away from a North Ontario Indian School, not realizing 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.
Written by Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author Joseph Boyden and beautifully illustrated by acclaimed artist Kent Monkman, Wenjack is a powerful and poignant look into the world of a residential school runaway trying to find his way home.
I kept seeing this book around and as I was slowly getting through Joseph Boyden’s bibliography, I figured I’d pick this book up. I was taking a break with The Orenda at the time so it seemed like a good idea to take a break with another book of his, set in a different period. Contains spoilers ahead! (If you don’t want to be spoiled, just jump to the last paragraph)
This novella was absolutely heartbreaking. To the very end I clung on to the hope that Chanie was going to make it home, and then to learn the real life story of Charlie Wenjack made things even more hearthbreaking. The story is pretty contained as we follow these boys running away from a residential school through the eyes of Chanie as well as through the Manitous that follow their plight through different forms. In such a contained fashion we not only learn about the conditions of the residential schools and its methods and treatment of the Indigenous children sent there (omg I saw the trauma from a mile away and it was still disturbing to touch on it) but also a bit about their culture, their beliefs (through the narratives of the various Manitous), their language, and at the heart of it just the humanity of this young boy.
Reading this book I can see why so many people recommended it and said it should be required reading. It’s a quick but powerful read and definitely raises awareness to the plight of the Indigenous People here in Canada in the past, as emphasised at the end by a note at the end of the novel.