Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Spotlight On #OwnVoices: When We Were Alone

Robertson, David A. When We Were Alone. Illus. by Julie Flett. Highwater Press, 2016. 24 pages. ISBN 978-1-55379-673-2.

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 (" 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.


K T Horning said...

I just got the chance to read an advance copy of this book on NetGalley, and it is just as amazing as Allie says it is. The repeated pattern of the the child's question based on current day activities (e.g. why do you wear your hair so long?) and her Kokum's response that includes an explanation based on past experience at boarding school, as well as a related act of resistance ("But sometimes when no one could see us..."), really makes this narrative exceptional and accessible. And, of course, Julie Flett's illustrations are excellent, as always.

Carol Baldwin said...

very good review. will recommend it to others. Thank you.