CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 9 . . . . January 6, 2006
The residential school experiences of First Nations people in Canada have been represented in various literary works to date, including Tomson Highway's Kiss of the Fur Queen, Jane Willis's Geniesh: An Indian Girlhood, Shirley Sterling's My Name is Seepeetza, and Sylvia Olsen, Rita Morris and Ann Sam's No Time To Say Goodbye: Children's Stories of Kuper Island Residential School. Many First Nations people who have gone through the residential school system have had traumatic experiences that continue to have lingering, negative effects upon younger generations' self-perceptions and their identification with their cultural past. At the same time, many of the younger generation are reaffirming their cultural heritage and communicating their experiences and achievements with the wider Canadian public in events such as the annual Aboriginal Achievement Awards.
Nicola Campbell's Shi-shi-etko offers a welcome addition to First Nations literature by delicately conveying, through a child's eyes, the resilience of First Nations' culture and physical survival amidst the tragedy of residential schools and their impact upon the entire First Nations community. Instead of focusing on the actual residential school experience, Campbell depicts Shi-shi-etko at a pivotal moment in her life. The story begins during the four days prior to Shi-shi-etko's departure for residential school and develops Shi-shi-etko's close relationship with her family as well as with the natural surroundings that constitute her home. Through this, Campbell is less interested in making Shi-shi-etko experience changes to her character than with emphasizing her steadfastness and resilience. This is consistent with the ways in which memory -Shi-shi-etko's memories of her current life as well as the First Nations' shared memories of their cultural heritage - inform the whole story.
Shi-shi-etko's intimacy and familiarity with nature is evident through her observations about nature - its rocks, plants, wildlife, and water. Kim LaFave's digital illustrations contribute significantly to this aspect of the story. With its vivid shades of colour, bold lines, and emphasis on Shi-shi-etko's interaction with her natural surroundings, LaFave's illustrations work together with Campbell's text to convey the vibrancy of her natural surroundings and her enjoyment within it. His illustrations show Shi-shi-etko wading through the creek, raising her arms up to the bright sky to welcome the new day with her mother, canoeing with her father through the waters, and walking with her grandmother through the forest. These images enhance the sense of loss and sadness that the story's ending conveys when Shi-shi-etko leaves for residential school. At the same time, the illustrations help to provide a sense of affirmation that Shi-shi-etko will not forget what she is leaving behind. During the days before her departure, Shi-shi-etko's parents and grandmother each remind her to remember her people's culture and land. She follows her grandmother's instructions to gather items from nature and to put them into a “bag of memories” so that she will not forget what she is leaving behind. However, in contrast to what her grandmother tells her, Shi-shi-etko does not bring the bag of memories with her. She decides to bury the bag at the roots of a fir tree and speaks to it respectfully: “Dear Grandfather Tree, Please keep my memories and my family safe. I will be home in the spring.” The accompanying illustration shows Shi-shi-etko crouching by the tree in the early morning dawn, with the two drivers who are picking her up in the distance. This illustration effectively juxtaposes her present life with the life that awaits her at residential school. At the same time, her dedication to the tree provides a hopeful note that, despite what will happen to her at residential school, she will retain her cultural identity and familial roots. Similarly, the story's final illustration and accompanying text continues this juxtaposition. The illustration shows her leaving for residential school in a truck with some other occupants whose faces are indistinct. As well, the truck in the picture is heading away from us and into the distance. Both of these elements emphasize a sense of loss and sadness, which is made even more poignant by Shi-shi-etko's resolve earlier in the story to remember everything that her grandmother teaches her about the forest's plants. However, Shi-shi-etko's reiterated observations about her surroundings in the story's closing lines mediate those emotions. Even though she cannot control what happens to her, Shi-shi-etko finds solace in reiterating her memories of her past experiences. The story's slow pace and reflective tone are appropriate to the character-driven nature of Campbell's story. This pace and tone help to convey the lingering sense of imminent change in the midst of the temporary stasis in Shi-shi-etko's life, which further enhances the tragedy that residential schools have had on First Nations children. Organized into a poetic-like format on the pages, the story's lines also help to convey this sense of difference. Representing sensitive topics for young children is a tricky task. Unlike books that target adult audiences, authors cannot depict such topics in overly negative terms in a children's picture book. More importantly, they also need to create characters with which readers can identify. Moving to a new place, as depicted in Campbell's book, is a common experience with which many children can relate: the difficulty of leaving a place that you know well behind and the need to remember things as they were. LaFave's illustrations of Shi-shi-etko in bed, counting the days that are left before she must leave, will enhance readers' intimacy with and empathy for Shi-shi-etko. As well, readers will be able to identify with the enjoyment that Campbell's protagonist, Shi-shi-etko, derives from the outdoors, which are enhanced by LaFave's close-up depictions of Shi-shi-etko among nature. The book's language may be a bit difficult for its suggested age group of ages four to seven, particularly for children below the age of six. It would be beneficial to have an adult read along with the child because the child may have occasional difficulty with some words, particularly those that refer to unfamiliar types of plants. In addition, adults can help children to situate the larger historical significance of Shi-shi-etko's story. At the beginning of the picture book, Campbell's introduction gives some context for this purpose: adults can draw upon this material when they discuss the story with children.
As part of a unit on First Nations history, teachers could also use this book to introduce students to a sensitive and dark part of Canadian history and to start discussion about the residential schools' psychological and cultural impact on children.
Huai-Yang Lim is currently pursuing a degree in Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.