Monday, May 16, 2011

Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

"My name is Olemaun Pokiak - that's OO-lee-mawn - but some of my classmates used to call me 'Fatty Legs.' They called me that because a wicked nun forced me to wear a pair of red stockings that made my legs look enormous. But I put an end to it. How? Well, I am going to let you in on a secret that I have kept for more than 60 years: the secret of how I made those stockings disappear."

This is the opening paragraph in a true story about residential schooling written by Christy Jordan-Fenton with her mother-in-law, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton.

When Olemaun begged her parents to send her to school so that she could learn to read, her parents tried to discourage her. She had no idea of the hardships she would face at residential school. She was born into an Inuvialuit family and spent her early years on Banks Island next to the Arctic Ocean. In 1944, at 8 years of age, Olemaun made the 5-day journey to Aklavik, on the Northwest Territories mainland, where her father sold his furs and stocked up on yearly supplies at the Hudson Bay Company. At Aklavik, there was also a Catholic school run by Belgian nuns and that is where Olemaun became known as Margaret. It was two years before she saw her parents again.

The nuns are described as crows and ravens doing a poor job of looking after little wrens who have been snatched from their nests. The children are forced to work very hard - cleaning, hauling wood, gardening, sewing, doing laundry and working in the hospital next door - but Margaret does learn reading and math. Her resourcefulness and strong spirit give this book an uplifting tone. Full-colour artwork by Liz Amini-Holmes and black-and-white photos from Margaret Pokiak-Fenton's own collection as well as archival materials nicely illustrate this moving account.

Grade 4-up. Readalikes suitable for children: My Name Is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling and Goodbye Buffalo Bay by Larry Loyie are two more autobiographical accounts of Aboriginal experiences in residential schools. For more for this same age group about Inuit life and culture: Arctic Adventures by Raquel Rivera and Jirina Marton; Curse of the Shaman by Michael Kusugak.

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