Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fatty Legs: A True Story by Margaret Pokiak-Fenton & Christy Jordan-Fenton, illustrated by Liz Amini-Holms

I’ve looked at several different accounts of residential schools, the places where native Americans from different areas were sent to be “civilized”, in Canada specifically from the mid-1800s to the 1960s. This is the best story I’ve found so far for younger children to explain this tragic episode in history.

This is the true story of one of the authors, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, told with the help of her daughter-in-law, Christy Jordan-Fenton. Olemaun, a member of the Inuvialuktun people group of the western Arctic, is fascinated by the idea of reading. Her older sister, Ayouniq, has been to the residential school and is now called Rosie and she can read from the books their father gave her. Olemaun begs constantly to be allowed to attend the school, despite the warnings from both her father and Rosie of how the outsiders will humiliate her and crush her spirit. But Olemaun is stubborn and finally her father gives in. She will go to the outsider’s school. Olemaun is sure that she will learn to read right away and as long as she is good she will not be punished. She will quickly return to her family with her new skills and all will be well.

She is wrong. A cruel nun, who Olemaun dubs the Raven, cuts her hair, gives her a new name, Margaret, and jeers at her because she cannot speak English. She has one friend from her own tribe, Agnes, but the other girls make fun of them. Margaret learns, to her horror, that she will not learn to read for many months; there is no school in the summer, only work and constant abuse from the other girls, the nuns, and occasionally the brothers. She is humiliated, hungry, and angry. When it is finally time to learn to read, the cruel Raven humiliates Margaret for her ignorance.

But Margaret refuses to be broken. She studies hard and learns to read, write, and do arithmetic. She plans to learn as much as she can so she can go home before another tortuous summer. Then the letter comes. The ice has not broken, her parents cannot return, and she is trapped for another year. The Raven dictates her letters so she cannot write home to beg her parents to send someone, and when the girls go on radio to talk to their parents, they are given a script. Margaret still stands firm; she refuses to speak one word. The Raven’s final humiliation is a pair of bright red stockings, when all the other girls receive new grey ones. Now Margaret must suffer even more humiliation and abuse from the other girls. Even Agnes is reluctant to be her friend anymore and share in the abuse. But Margaret’s spirit remains strong and she finds a way to fight back and finally break the Raven’s hold over her. Margaret returns to her family the next year but it is a painful reunion as she must learn to be a member of her tribe again, rather than an outsider.

After notes explain what happened to Olemaun/Margaret after she returned to her family and discuss residential schools, how they damaged native tribes and how the children who suffered there are finally able to speak out against what happened to them. The small photos sprinkled throughout the book are footnoted to the back pages, where they appear full size. There are short biographical pieces on each of the authors and the illustrator. Liz Amini-Holmes’ illustrations are atmospheric and dark, showing Olemaun and her family, and her encounters with the nuns and other girls at the school. The illustrations add emotional depth to the retelling of Margaret’s story.

This is an excellent book to hand to 8-12 year olds as well as teens to explain the impact residential schools have had on native groups. The authors don’t shy away from the harsh realities, but the story is told in a way that doesn’t emphasize the abuse, but rather the indomitable spirit of Margaret. Children will be able to empathize with her trials, thinking of times they have been teased or had a teacher who disliked them, rather than seeing this as a remote historical event.

Verdict: Highly recommended for your nonfiction sections. Real stories always have much more of an impact than bland histories and this story really brings home a part of North American history many people are unfamiliar with. I’m going to put it in my biography section.

ISBN: 9781554512478; Published June 2010 by Annick; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library

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