April 17, 2014

Not My Girl

by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
Illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard
Annick Press
36 pp.
Ages 6-9
January, 2014

Last year, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton's first biographic story, Fatty Legs (Annick, 2010), was successfully transformed into a picture book, When I Was Eight (Annick, 2013), reviewed here on April 28, 2013.  This book started the telling of Margaret's delivery to a residential school and her experiences there.  A subsequent book, A Stranger at Home (Annick, 2011) has Margaret, or rather Olemaun as she is known to her family, returning home.  Not My Girl is the poignantly illustrated version of that second book.

Margaret had been sent from her home on Banks Island, part of the Arctic archipelago, to attend a Catholic residential school in Aklavik, North West Territories, almost 750 km away as the crow flies (though I'm sure Margaret's journey was far more arduous). Two years later she returns to her homeNot surprising, when her mother sees her daughter, now with shortened hair, wearing clothes and shoes unfamiliar in their community, she shouts out, "Not my girl!" (pg. 3)

Thankfully, a warm welcome from her father, calling her Olemaun again, has her mother and siblings joining in that accepting embrace.  But no matter how much Olemaun wants to fit back into her family, her stomach is unaccepting of their food, the sled dogs don't recognize her scent and she has forgotten her language and the skills she'd learned as a child.  Her disappointment even leads to negligence when she keeps a new pup from his mother, almost causing his death.  But with patience and practice, both mother and daughter find their way back to each other, and the words, "My girl!" (pg. 35) spoken with pride again.

Margaret Pokiak-Fenton dedicates this book as follows:
"For all the children still trying to find their way home.  May you each discover a way to step out from the darkness behind you into the light ahead." (pg. 36)  
She obviously can recall the darkness of the residential school trials and knows of the difficulties associated with going home as a child altered by her experiences.  It is only with the love of her family and the connections with those who were similarly displaced that Olemaun/Margaret was able to find her way home.  While A Stranger at Home indicates that the process of that acceptance was much more complex than illustrated in Not My Girl, the selection of anecdotes here presents a general impression of those struggles without overwhelming younger readers with the horrors and emotional pain that were inevitable.  Gabrielle Grimard's multi-faceted illustrations display that same complexity of spirit, using pencil, gouache, watercolour and even oil paint. There are subtle details in watercolour, the brights of gouache and the depth of oil.  But it's Gabrielle Grimard's drawings of people that convey the breadth of emotions with just the simplest of strokes.  The sorrow and disappointment that must have been part of Olemaun/Margaret's homecoming are evident in the eyes, the turned cheek, the frowning lips.  But just as striking are the brilliant dance of the northern lights and the snow-flying dog-sledding.

Take Not My Girl as a biographic telling of a dark history for Olemaun/Margaret and so many Aboriginal People but experience the lesson of how a little girl and her family were able to turn to the light eventually and together.  The hope for that light is in the words and the illustrations of Not My Girl, and not to be missed.

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