Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Spotlight On #OwnVoices: When We Were Alone
An inquisitive young girl, working in the garden with her kókom, asks a series of questions. "Nókom, why do you wear so many colours?" "Nókom, why do you wear your hair so long?" "Nókom,why do you speak in Cree?"
Nókom's answers come in three parts: What life was like at home, in her community; what life was like at the school she went to, which was far away from home; and what life was like when she and her classmates managed to escape from the watchful eyes of their captors for a few minutes at a time, during which they remembered, and briefly re-lived, happy times.
Robertson's straightforward yet poetic text ("...at the school I went to, far away from home, they cut off all our hair. Our strands of hair mixed together on the ground like blades of dead grass") makes this deceptively simple book accessible to roughly first grade and up, and Flett's delicate collages encapsulate the mood of every page turn. Descriptions of the enforced bleakness of life at boarding school, as children were dressed mono-chromatically, punished for speaking their own languages, and prevented from seeing their family members, are reflected with appropriately bleak renderings; in the rare moments children can snatch alone, splashes of color and vibrancy emerge.
Perhaps most noteworthy about When We Were Alone is how it elegantly balances three separate narratives: life at home, in the community; life at a dehumanizing "school"; and, brief snatches of humanity and happiness in the face of that colonial force. As important as it is to teach children the truth about race and colonialism in history, there is a danger of instilling in them a narrative in which Native peoples are necessarily victims. When We Were Alone honestly presents a history that attempted to victimize Cree children--and then counters it with a narrative of survival, humanity, and community. A first purchase for every children's collection.
Reviewed by Allie Jane Bruce.