A Native Canadian boy tries to find his way as a man despite his cultural alienation in this novel.
The residential school system aimed to forcibly assimilate Native peoples by taking children from their parents. The kids were given European names, punished for speaking their own languages, and put to work. Abuses and exploitation were rife, and many children died. In this tale, Migizi Baswenaazhi, a young Native boy, is taken from his home and put in a harsh school where he’s assigned the name David Bass. Unlike many children, he survives disease and the bad food; polite and hardworking, he at first does well. But David is an outsider in his own country. He turns to drinking for escape and wrecks whatever he’s built up. Yet he’s hopeful, reflecting that he’s like the tannery furs that become soft and warm again after harsh processing: “The truth of the material survived everything.” World War II gives David the opportunity to find his truth as a warrior. But helping to liberate Bergen-Belsen disturbs him, bringing back memories about being sexually abused by a priest at the school. At home, he’s hailed as a hero, though by 1960 he still can’t protect his family from the schools. According to the book’s introduction by Baron Alexander Deschauer (Slaves of Circumstance, 2017, etc.) and debut author Lucky Deschauer, “Hitler was so inspired by the residential school system…that he used it as a model for the concentration camps.” It’s true that Hitler found inspiration from the design of Native American reservations but not from the schools, so this statement and the title are misleading. That said, the schools were horrific, and this novel is far more thoughtful than its sensationalist introduction or title would suggest. The Deschauers capture David’s point of view with intelligence and sympathy. A farmer’s harsh words strike him “like the branches that slapped my face when I was young and followed my father in the bush,” as if even then the world conspired to slap David with his ethnicity. They portray David’s complications well—his anger, self-hatred, despair, and rationalizations—as when he beats his wife with his belt: “I knew how to do it; the sisters and brothers did it often enough to us. They helped me become the man I was.”
A sensitive, well-told story of one life ruined by the racism of involuntary assimilation.