When the Indian agent comes for Irene and her brothers, their parents reluctantly give them up to be taken to one of Canada’s infamous residential schools.
At the school, Irene is separated from her brothers, scrubbed, shorn, and assigned a number: 759. When she and another girl exchange words in Ojibwa, a nun punishes Irene for speaking “the devil’s language.” The punishment is horrifying: she is made to hold a bedpan filled with hot coals. The year passes slowly, chapel preferable to chores and lessons, especially as she can see her brothers there. At home the next summer, Irene tells her father, the community’s chief, about the “lessons” taught at “that horrible place”—and when the Indian agent comes again in the fall, the children hide while he tells the agent, “You will NEVER. TAKE MY CHILDREN. AWAY. AGAIN!” By the time readers get to this place in the story, they will have gotten past the stiff beginning and occasional overwriting and will be as relieved as Irene at their rescue. Newland’s watercolors capture the warmth of this Anishinaabe family and the austerity of the boarding school; the scene in which Irene’s father stares down the agent will have children cheering. Dupuis and Kacer base the story on the experiences of Dupuis’ grandmother, and they provide further information on the residential schools in an author’s note.
A moving glimpse into a not-very-long-past injustice. (Picture book. 7-11)