Great title, eh? As soon as I saw it, I wanted to know more. When I read this memoir by Canadians Christy Jordan-Fenton and her mother-in-law Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, I wasn’t disappointed.
In 1944, Olemaun Pokiak (Margaret) was a strong-minded Inuvialuit girl who really wanted to learn to read. Because she lived in a small village in the Canadian Arctic, that meant she had to leave home to go to boarding school.
Despite warnings from her older sister, who had recently returned from school, Olemaun badgered her father to let her go. Finally he relented. The trip to Aklavik took five days by schooner. At the age of eight, she said goodbye to her parents and family, expecting to be reunited – and literate -- within the year.
What follows is an account of the price Olemaun paid for learning to read, which she considered the “greatest of the outsiders’ mysteries.” As one year stretched into two, she endured hard labors, punishments, and both cultural and personal humiliation at the hands of The Raven. This nun singled out Olemaun for extra doses of punitive “education,” epitomized by the awful red stockings Olemaun alone was forced to wear. Those ugly stockings earned her the nickname “Fatty Legs.”
Pokiak-Fenton’s true story reminds me of Roald Dahl’s fictional Matilda – except Olemaun’s situation was all too true to be humorous. Olemaun’s torments were committed not only against her but against the Inuvialuit culture that nurtured her spirit. Fortunately, two things saved Olemaun: her determination and The Swan, a kind nun who counteracted some of The Raven’s worst abuses.
The power of literacy comes through loud and clear in this story. Through Olemaun's quest to learn to read, we see the indignities, small and large, that accompany the disadvantage of illiteracy. Imagine, for one, mistakenly purchasing – and trying to brush your teeth with – the contents of a tube of shaving cream that looked like toothpaste.
In 104 pages, this first-hand account conveys directly and uniquely what it felt like to be an indigenous child at boarding school, powerless at the hands of adults from the dominant culture. The telling is thoughtful, spirited, and frequently eloquent. Evocative illustrations by Liz Amini-Holmes enhance the chapters, while the black-and-white photographs from "Olemaun's Scrapbook" convey a strong sense of era and setting.
On this Thanksgiving holiday weekend, I’m thankful that Olemaun Pokiak did indeed learn to read and found a way, with Christy Jordan-Fenton, to tell her story. Thank you for reminding us that “A wren can be just as clever as a raven.”
Published by Annick Press.
Kirkus, starred review, Nov. 14, 2010.
Fatty Legs book trailer here.