________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 7 . . . . November 21, 2008

cover Shin-chi's Canoe.

Nicola I. Campbell. Illustrated by Kim LaFave.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi.
40 pp., hardcover, $18.95.
ISBN 978-0-88899-857-6.

Preschool-grade 3 / Ages 4-8.

Review by Huai-Yang Lim.

***½ /4

Reviewed from Advance Review Copy.

excerpt:

Dust came in waves, getting in their eyes and in their noses, until they could hardly breathe. It followed the truck like a snake all along the valley.

"My Shin-chi, we will not see our family until the sockeye salmon return. These are the things you must always remember," Shi-shi-etko said, gesturing to the trees, mountains and rivers below.

 

The history of First Nations children's residential school experiences in Canada has had a traumatic and tragic impact that continues to reverberate among generations of First Nations people in Canada today. By separating children from their families and schooling them in an alien environment that excluded and devalued First Nations culture, language, and identity, these residential schools had debilitating psychological, social, and cultural effects on these children. As a result, many have become permanently scarred and unable to function effectively in their adult lives. The history and effects of the residential school experience have been documented in books such as Shingwauk's Vision as well as being portrayed in autobiographical works such as Jane Willis's Geniesh: An Indian Girlhood, Beatrice Culleton's In Search of April Raintree, and Shirley Sterling's My Name is Seepeetza. However, not many picture books have dealt with this subject, partly because of the challenges in conveying this matter in a way that is accessible for a younger readership.

     Nicola Campbell effectively portrays the residential experience in her new picture book, Shin-chi's Canoe, a sequel to her earlier book, Shi-shi-etko. Focusing on the experiences of two First Nations children, Campbell's story can be read by children but also by adults, much like Allan Say who also addresses serious historical themes, such as the Japanese internment camps, in his picture books. Although the book is marketed as a "children's picture book," it can also be seen as a contribution to Canada's historical fiction because it draws attention to an important part of Canada's history that has, in the past, not been written about extensively.

     Like her last book Shi-shi-etko, Campbell does ground her story within the context of First Nations' history, but her focus is on representing how two children cope with their residential school experience, which they cannot escape because they are required by law to attend that school. Despite the residential school's isolating and impersonal environment, Campbell conveys a sense of hope and resilience among the children that is sustained by the strength of the memories that they have of their family, culture, and natural environment in which they have grown up.

internal art

     As with Campbell's previous book, Shi-shi-etko, Kim LaFave provides the illustrations which effectively complement and enhance the impact of the story which takes place a year after Shi-shi-etko has already gone to residential school and returned home for the summer. However, she is now going back to the school for her second year with her younger brother, Shin-chi, who is now starting his first year at the school. The rest of the book follows these two children's experiences from the time they leave for the residential school in the fall until the time that they return home the next summer. The narrative's viewpoint alternates between Shi-shi-etko and Shin-chi, although this book focuses more on Shin-chi's thoughts and feelings about his experiences.

     The generic-looking faces of First Nations children, combined with the shadowed, dark tones in some of the text's illustrations, create an impersonal atmosphere that depersonalizes the children as individuals and subtly highlights the cruelty of a residential school system that treats First Nations children as a homogenous group. For example, one illustration portrays the group of First Nations children who sit in the back of the truck that is taking them to residential school. The children are portrayed in drab, brown tones without facial expressions and are surrounded by an environment that is also muted in its yellow, gray, and brown tones. These same colours are used in the illustration where the children have just arrived at the residential school and are instructed to go inside in two separate lines, the lines divided by gender. In the same picture, the white adults are portrayed with the same colours and with their faces being in shadows as well. This further emphasizes the depersonalizing effects of the residential school and the uncaring attitude of those in charge of it. A third illustration in which the children are eating in the dinner hall further conveys a sense of isolation and unhappiness. The shadowy and dark dinner hall in which the children sit for lunch contrasts with the brightly lit room in which the adults are sitting. None of the children look happy, which contrasts with the adults whose faces can be seen through a set of glass doors.

     These illustrations complement the story in which Campbell remind readers of the treatment to which residential school participants were subjected. Shi-shi-etko was "punished because she could not understand the English words," and the teachers there "cut her long braids and threw them away." Boys and girls were separated physically as well as taught different subjects depending on their gender.

     About two-thirds into the book, Campbell shows how Shin-chi misses his family and the natural environment in which he had grown up. The canoe that he places on the river symbolizes the home from which he has been taken away. At the same time, it signifies a sense of hope because Shin-chi knows "that the current would carry it safely home." Kim LaFave's illustrations enhance the narrative by visually showing the shift away from Shin-chi's physical and psychological isolation in the school. For example, at the point of the story where Campbell mentions that Shin-chi misses his family, the accompanying illustration portrays Shin-chi against the backdrop of a wintry landscape. In contrast, brighter tones and more varied colours are in the illustration that shows Shin-chi with a friend he has made at school. These visual juxtapositions also appear in other parts of the book. For example, the illustration of the truck ride to residential school is followed by an illustration on the following page which conveys Shin-Chi's memories of the natural environment that he and Shi-shi-etko have left behind.

     Through Shi-shi-etko's mother, Campbell does mention the laws that force First Nations people to send their children to residential school. However, her picture book is more about the experiences of being at that school, as told from two child protagonists' viewpoints. Children who read this book will be able to identify with Shi-shi-etko and Shin-chi's feelings of loneliness and isolation as well as their resilience and their feelings of joy at returning home to their parents. For young readers to better appreciate the story, it would be important for adults to provide the historical context in which this story takes place. In addition, adults could help with understanding the book because its language would be a bit advanced for young children, particularly those under the age of six. This book can be paired with Campbell's earlier picture book, Shi-shi-etko, and the two books could be read together because both deal with the residential experience, with Shin-chi's Canoe as a natural extension of the story in Shi-shi-etko.

     Nicola Campbell gives an informative preface that teachers, librarians, and parents can use as part of establishing the historical context for the book and, more generally, the history of First Nations people in Canada. Depending on the age group of children, the book can be discussed in the context of living in an unfamiliar environment, the importance of memory, issues that pertain to cultural and personal identity, and Canada's historical treatment of First Nations people. Even though Shin-chi's Canoe is a picture book, it can fit readily into a Canadian children's literature course, a course focusing on First Nations or Canadian history, or a course about First Nations literature. It deals with cultural and historical issues that extend beyond its literary genre as a picture book and, in doing so, provides a text that can be shared and discussed by both children and adults alike. Furthermore, because there are not many picture books that deal with the residential school experience in Canada, this book is an important addition to this literature with its intertwining of historical fact with an engaging narrative and evocative illustrations.

Highly Recommended.

Huai-Yang Lim has completed a degree in Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta and currently works as a research specialist. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children's literature in his spare time.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.
 

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