October 25, 2016

I Am Not a Number

by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer
Illustrated by Gillian Newland
Second Story Press
32 pp.
Ages 7+
September 2016
Reviewed from advance reading copy

Stories like I Am Not a Number should always be told.  They should always be told loudly and emphatically and with purpose, to tell of a wrongdoing that was perpetrated against First Nations families like the Couchie family of Nipissing First Nation.  Tales of children stolen from their homes, under the direction of government, to attend and live at residential schools.  Narratives of holding onto self when everything was done to annihilate that sense.  This is the account of author Jenny Kay Dupuis’ granny, Irene Couchie Dupuis.

In 1928, Irene was living with her father, Chief Ernest Couchie, and her mother and two brothers, George and Ephraim, on Nipissing Reserve Number 10 when the Indian agent of the day demanded the children be surrendered to him to deliver to St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School.  Though her parents protest–her mother especially vehement that eight-year-old Irene needed to be with her family–the children are essentially taken by force.

The children are going with me to the residential school.  They are wards of the government, now.  They belong to us. (pg. 2)

With final goodbyes, her mother telling them to “Never forget home or our ways.  Never forget your mother and father.  Never forget who you are.” (pg. 7), the three children are taken away and separated, boys from girls.  Still Irene tries to stay strong, even after she’s told that she will be known as 759, telling herself “I am not a number.  I am Irene Couchie, daughter of Ernest and Mary Ann Couchie.  I will never forget who I am.” (pg. 8).  And through the horrible showering to “scrub all the brown off” (pg. 9) and the cutting of her long hair–normally only cut when a loved one was lost– and burning of her hands as punishment for speaking her own language, Irene heeds her mother’s words to never forget who she is.
From I Am Not a Number 
by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, 
illus. by Gillian Newland

After a full year of biting her tongue and dreaming of home, to and from which all letters were banned, Irene and her brothers are sent home for the summer.  As happy as she is to feel the love of her family again, to eat well and speak her own language, Irene is troubled by images of her time at school and her impending return in the fall.  But Irene’s father has other plans for his children and none of them include that horrible place.

Jenny Kay Dupuis does her granny Irene and her heritage honour by telling this story.  It’s a difficult one for all families involved in the residential school debacle, even for generations afterwards but one that Jenny Kay Dupuis tells, in collaboration with award-winning historical fiction and non-fiction writer Kathy Kacer, to inform and clarify for young readers.  It’s a shocking tragedy from our history but one from which we can only hope all learn valuable lessons.  I Am Not a Number is illustrated compassionately by Gillian Newland, who also illustrated Kathy Kacer’s The Magician of Auschwitz (Second Story Press, 2014) and A Boy Asked the Wind (Barbara Nickel, Red Deer Press, 2015). In the realistic style of Alex Colville and using the sombre tones of greys, blacks and browns for the residential school and a similar palette with splashes of gold and green away from that setting, Gillian Newland evokes the appropriate sentiment the book.  I Am Not a Number may be illustrated and classified as juvenile non-fiction but the extensive text and the account within is a mature one, yet one that can be told and taught and learned with empathy and as tribute.
From I Am Not a Number 
by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, 
illus. by Gillian Newland

1 comment:

  1. A very important book and should be in all schools.