There is a growing demand in public libraries and schools for simple stories which introduce Canadian First Nations cultures, stories that range from those which honour the old ways of life to those dealing with the difficulties of coming to grips with a noisy 21st century.
The Train, winner of the Second Story Press Indigenous Writing Contest for 2019, is not the first book to be published dealing with the legacy of the residential schools which affected thousands of Indigenous children (see Christy Jordan-Fenton’s When I Was Eight; When We Were Alone, but another take on the subject can only be welcome.
Here, elderly Uncle is encountered out on the plain by his lively great-niece Ashley who is on her way home from school. As they rest on the old concrete foundation that is the only thing left of the local train station, Uncle begins to tell his story of a happy childhood cut short when a whole community of children was taken off to residential school.
“My brother and sister were a bit younger than me, so they got put
on a different car. Timmy and I were bigger and they moved us to the
front. When we got to the school, the nuns told us to get inside.
They took our clothes. They took our baskets. They cut off all of
our hair. They told us we were no longer native. And if we put up a
fuss, we were hit, sometimes worse…” His voice trailed off into a whisper.
“We weren’t allowed to speak our language. We weren’t allowed
to be Nnu*.”
Ashley’s uncle picked up his handkerchief and blew his nose. He clutched it
tightly in his right hand, his shoulders trembling softly.
[*Nnu: in the Mi’gmaq language, an indigenous person]
Uncle explains that he comes back to the place from which he was taken to remember, to pass on his experience, but also to look towards the future.
“You and your sister make me so happy. When I hear you laugh,
and see you run and play it makes me think that one day everything will be
okay again. One day we won’t be so sad.”
He paused and looked down the track for a moment.
“I wanted you to know where your family has come from, Ashley.
So you can be proud of where you are going.”
Mi’gmaq author Jodie Callaghan has created a sensitive and flowing text that, in the course of describing a short afternoon’s encounter between a child and an elder, embodies a generation’s suffering. A touching line near the end of the story states, “I am waiting for what we lost that day to come back to us.” But the hopeful note of Uncle’s pride in his young relatives leaves us waiting for better things too.
Georgia Leslie, who lives in the British Columbia Interior, contrasts the clear illustrations (in what appears to be a line and oil pastel technique) of an open sky and rolling plains with a few darker pictures of the school pulled from Uncle’s memory bank. The affection between Ashley and Uncle are made obvious here. At the end, images of family activities from the past and some of the creatures important to indigenous people dance above Uncle’s head as he thinks of the beautiful things he has known in his life.
The Train, a book about an important and unfortunate part of Canada’s history, will probably require some careful introduction by adults to most young readers, but it will be a useful addition to many collections.
Ellen Heaney, a retired children’s librarian, lives in Coquitlam, British Columbia.