8 December 2016

Wenjack - Joseph Boyden

This is a heart-breaking little book.  I started reading it last night and finished it in one sitting (though the fact that I didn't start reading it until after midnight is evidence of my membership in the BadDecisionsBookClub™).  Once I started, I couldn't put it down.

The 97 pages of this book tell the story of Charlie/Chanie Wenjack, an 11-year-old boy who ran away from his residential school to try and walk 600km home through the north-western Ontario bush in 1966.  Unsurprisingly, he doesn't make it very far before he dies from exposure beside the train tracks that he was following.  Two years after he was forcibly taken away from his family, his body was returned to them in a casket.

The story was even more poignant because the school that Chanie was sent to was Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School that was located in Kenora.  When I lived in Kenora for 8 months, I used to drive by the site where it was located.  The bush that Chanie was travelling through is the same bush where I would go hiking and canoeing.  As he was struggling along in the cold and wind and sleet and snow, Boyden's word painting combined with my own time spent in that same area led to a harrowing experience for my imagination.

The story of the residential schools in Canada is an important story to be told.  I have been privileged to be entrusted with stories from people who survived these schools in my career as a physiotherapist.  While Boyden doesn't describe the experience directly, Chanie's memories of the school and the abuse that he was subjected to haunt him as he walks along.

The book won't take you long to read, but if you are Canadian (or if you are interested in the history of Canada), this is an important book to read.

This isn't a happy book, and it left me feeling bereft.  In the hours since I finished reading it, I've been trying to think if there is anything redeeming that can come out of the story of this abandoned little boy. The only thing that I can think of comes not in Chanie's story, but in the Author's Note at the end where he writes that Chanie Wenjack's death led to the first public inquiry into the residential school system, and even though it took another 30 years, the system in Canada did finally end.

Next up I'm going to read Jeff Lemire and Gord Downie's take on the same story.

(This is book 6/13 for me in the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set.)


  1. There is a brief reference to his story in the Summary Report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's work on residiential schools (probably much more information in the full report); I'm keen to read this slim book, but as you've said, obviously it's not a happy story, so I'm sure it'll be a tough read.

  2. Tough, but compelling. Once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down.