Though a rather small, unassuming book that took me a short amount of time to read, Wenjack by Joseph Boyden conveyed a story that will stay with me forever. Its brevity is swallowed by its poignancy, carrying with it a great weight in contrast to its size. This weight comes from the tragic history of displacement, death, abuse, and what Boyden calls “an attempted cultural genocide” suffered by the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people of Canada. This was suffered at the hands of the Canadian Indian residential school system, which from the 1870s to 1996 had more than 150,000 Indigenous children over seven generations removed from their families with the intention of assimilating them into the dominant Canadian culture.
Wearing only a light windbreaker in late October in Northwestern Ontario, Chanie and two of his friends flee from their residential school on a path they believe to be secretive enough to evade retrieval. The first chapter, prior to their flight, is short but effective. Though we are spared graver details at this point, through vague descriptions of violence and abuse, as well as obvious degradation we quickly come to understand just how oppressive the environment is, as well as the overwhelming desire they felt to escape from it.
We also learn of Chanie’s resilience as he privately tries to preserve his language, despite the constant threat of violence from the institution that wishes to suppress it entirely. This manifests in his narration throughout, where he uses many Ojibwe words along with their English counterparts. This was a distinctive aspect to the story as the meanings of many words became familiar to me — “Daddy. Nindede.” — regardless of my ability to correctly pronounce them. I liked that as I got further into the story use of the English for some words started to disappear, yet I’d seen them enough to understand what he was saying.
From chapter to chapter the perspective alternates between Chanie’s, told in the first-person, and that of the Manitous, spirits of the forest that follow, observe, and sometimes influence his situation. Their assistance is fleeting however, as their role in the story is primarily that of subtle observers, providing commentary as if from the collective mind of Nature itself, in all its harsh splendour. Their sympathy is felt, but despite their spiritual presence they can only offer small comforts. Chanie is on his own, for the most part.
Each chapter is given a title based on an animal, which serves as a motif in their respective chapters. This is sometimes more metaphorical or abstract, using the idea or presence of the animal to convey a certain idea or feeling. Other times it is more direct such as when the Manitous inhabit various animal forms while they follow Chanie along, such as that of a wood tick in order to attach themselves to him.
The narration, though distinct between Chanie and the Manitous, consistently has a detached almost dreamlike quality to it. This is emphasized by the fact that there isn’t any dialogue. The reader is made aware of thoughts, feelings, and communication taking place, but we are never presented verbatim what they’re saying. The Manitous narrate as if they are speaking to an audience, despite being situated in the story itself, and provide details about the world around Chanie that he couldn’t know. They also seamlessly shift their viewpoint as they move between different animal forms. Chanie narrates using shortened, sometimes broken sentences, speaking directly to himself: “Do you remember? I remember, me.” His perspective is a lot more grounded, limited only to what he is thinking and observes. Altogether, the storytelling structure allowed me to immerse myself in the atmosphere and setting of the story in a powerful way, making the Chanie’s struggle to return home all the more impactful.
Though beautifully told, Wenjack is ultimately a heartbreaking story, which is important to know going in; the details on the inside cover make this apparent. I love Canada and I am proud to be Canadian, but this stain on our history is shameful. The image Canada has cultivated for itself is one of peacekeeping, multiculturalism, and unabashed politeness. Contrary to this prevalent image we do have a troubled, very recent, past that needs to be acknowledged, as we seem to have spent a lot of time pretending things like this never happened. This book is a fictionalized account, but Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack was a real person who shared the fate of our protagonist. This book stands as a crucial reminder not just of what he suffered, but countless others as well.