A Stranger at Home by Christy Jordan-Fenton & Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes, Annick Press, 2011
It is impossible to read A Stranger At Home and its prequel, Fatty Legs, without becoming angry at the injustice that was perpetrated upon the Aboriginal people in Canada in the name of 'civilization' and 'assimilation.' As I read both books, I was overwhelmed by conflicting emotions of shame, anger, and sorrow at how systematic and cruel the residential school system was and how early this misguided endeavour began and how long it lasted'the first residential schools were set up in the 1840s with the last one closing as recently as 1996. The purpose of the schools, which separated children from their families, has been described as 'killing the Indian in the child' ' that is, robbing Indian children of their culture, language, family, community, and sense of place in the world into which they were born and belong, in short, their humanity.
Fatty Legs and A Stranger at Home are stellar memoirs. In the first book we meet Olemaun, whose name is changed to Margaret by the nuns. Margaret longs to know how to read (her older sister Rosie spent four years at the residential school and reads Alice In Wonderland to her). Each year when the schooner the Immaculata docks to 'pluck' the children and take them to school, she asks her father whether this is the year she can go. He's had the experience of being 'plucked' from his family to go to school and resists passing this legacy onto his daughter. But, finally, he agrees because he knows that Margaret must learn to read and write in order to get on in a world that is changing, because it is increasingly being taken over by 'outsiders.' The ice returns early that year. Margaret cannot return to the family home on Banks Island and spends two full years at the school in Aklavik, in the Mackenzie River Delta, without a summer break. Her experiences, at the school, are depicted in Fatty Legs.
In A Stranger at Home, Margaret's return to her family completes the story. In Tuktoyaktuk, Margaret is finally reunited with her family and can't wait to get home to Banks Island, far away from the school she has come to despise. But a few shocking surprises are in story for her. She no longer remembers how to speak Inuvialuktan, her native tongue; she can't stomach the food she once loved; and is astounded when her mother announces upon seeing her, 'Not my girl. Not my girl.' The last shock is the hardest to bear. Father has decided to live in Tuk and get work with the Whites. Banks Island will no longer be home. There are just one too many changes for Margaret.
The pain of Margaret's re-entry into family life is perfectly rendered in Christy Jordan-Fenton's poetically dark and emotionally sensitive prose. I asked her how she created the flow of the narrative from stories told to her by her mother-in-law, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton. 'Basically, she (Margaret) doesn't drive and being elderly I drive her to town a lot for appointments and such. She's always telling me stories and I have a memory like an elephant for conversations. So, I try my best to keep inside her voice, while also trying to make the words fit in a literary way. I stitch it all together, asking questions as I go and doing research ' Maggie's great (that would be Maggie De Vries, super editor) for hounding me to research ' then I let Margaret read and change anything she doesn't like.'
A Stranger At Home is as finely crafted and beautifully illustrated as the first book. Both are works of art in every way ' the text is completely accessible for children ages 8 to 12, and a joy for adults to read; and the illustrations are exquisite, with the photographs featured in the margins gathered, as an added bonus, at the back of each book. The illustrator, Liz Amini-Holmes, painted the drawings in acrylic, then scanned the art and made final adjustments to colour in photo shop. If you'd like to see more of her technique visit Liz's blog at [...]. 'My goal in all of my work,' says Liz, 'and certainly with Fatty Legs and A Stranger at Home, is for the reader to feel the art, not just look at it, making an emotional connection.' Both artists have exceeded this goal and the emotional connection the reader feels with Margaret is strong and authentic.
Finally, I asked the author what the response from the aboriginal community has been. 'The response has been amazing for FATTY LEGS! It has been short listed for the First Nation Communities Read program, which is really exciting. A STRANGER AT HOME is still so new I don't think many people have read it yet. We were invited to speak at the Truth and Reconciliation National Event in Inuvik, which was a great honour. I was completely overwhelmed by the gratitude shown to me by the elders there. Margaret of course, has become an overnight hero and I think it is fantastic to see her celebrated in that way!'
Fatty Legs and A Stranger at Home are unique and compelling stories, and I highly recommend both.