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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

a stranger at home, written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton. Artworks by Liz Amini-Holmes. Annick Press, 2011. $12.95 ages 10 and up

"It was all too much: the way my little brother studied me as if I were a strange species of fish that had washed ashore, and the way my mother touched the ends of my hair and sobbed that her little girl had been turned into an outsider. I no longer belonged to my own family."

This poignant and heartbreaking look at the long-term effects for the children who were taken from their families to attend residential schools is the sequel to Fatty Legs (Annick Press, 2010). It continues Margaret's story of the isolation and hurt she felt while she was away from home. She is now 10  and her absence from family has been two long years. 

The family is not overjoyed to see her when they meet her at the boat. Her mother doesn't even recognize her. She can no longer speak to her siblings in the language of her people and she has lost her taste for traditional Inuit food.

This memoir recalls the horror of the school itself and the confusion and distress felt as Margaret realizes that she is now considered an 'outsider' by many. She cannot play with her best friend from school, she is unable to communicate within her own family, and her feelings of rejection are strong.

It takes time, patience, an understanding and helpful father. As she slowly and surely regains her place with family and community, she relearns the traditional ways and finds solace there. She is happy never to go back to the school that has so changed her. Then, her father asks for her help.

He is a forward-thinking man and knows that his other daughters need an education that will help them as the world around them changes. He needs his oldest daughter to return to school with her sisters, to keep them safe and assuage their fears and longing for home. The Margaret who returns to the residential school with her sisters is a changed young woman. She is stronger, more courageous and certainly more aware of the difficulties she will again face:

"Our journey wasn't going to be an easy one, but we would return, steeped in the outsiders' knowledge and also with the wisdom of our own people. I would make sure my sisters retained that wisdom, and that living with the outsiders would not make them forget what home meant. Home was not only where you were safe but also where your family was, and there was strength in having each other. I was Olemaun now, and I would keep us together, safe and strong."

The addition of archival photos and information boxes to help explain unfamiliar words add to the story's appeal. The stunning artwork affords the reader a chance to know the Inuit community, its people and customs. The expressive faces run the gamut from abject sorrow to growing joy, and finally, a sense of quiet confidence. The softness of Liz Amini-Holmes' dark palette made me feel present in the story and very aware of all that was happening there.

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