Review: These Are My Words: The Residential School Diary of Violet Pesheens

At last the Dear Canada series has a book featuring an Indigenous protagonist*! Ruby Slipperjack, who is herself Eabeametoong and who was sent to a Residential School at the age of seven, has written the diary of Violet (Pynut) Pesheens. Violet is thirteen when she is sent to study at one of Northern Ontario’s Residential Schools. The year is 1966.

I had a nightmare where I saw Grandma and I couldn’t remember any Anishinabe words to tell her what I wanted to say. It was like I had no mouth, and she would just look at me and wait to hear what I have to say and I struggle to say something. I was crying when I woke up. I think it’s because sometimes I can’t remember what something is called in Anishinabe when I see it.

robin – opichina

aandeg – crow

papaasae – red-headed woodpecker

kwikwishi – Canada jay (126-127)

Violet is not happy about being away from her beloved grandmother. It is hard for her to remember not to speak only English, and not to play any games from home. On the (slender) plus side, she likes the food.

I ask what the meal is called if I really like it. […] That’s funny because I never used to care what I ate as long as my tummy had some food in it. (p. 39)

Violet is one of the later generations to attend Residential Schools; her mother was sent to one, as well. Their experiences are in some ways the same, and in some says different. Violet’s experiences are also different from those of her classmates, as she learns through quiet conversations where the adults can’t hear. Unlike some Residential Schools, Violet’s functions mostly as a group home. She attends classes at a predominantly white school.

Susan told me to ignore the white girls at school who won’t talk to me. […] I never used to think of myself as Anishinabe, but now I’m always remembering who I am when they look at me like I’m not supposed to be there.

I feel like I am invading their space. (p. 27-28)

Snubs from white girls, however, are a smaller problem than the gangs of bored white boys who chase any First Nations student they see in town, or the white men who roll by in cars. Slipperjack doesn’t play down the dangers of being an Anishinabe girl, although the worst horrors of Residential Schools are mercifully only rumours to Violet, overhearing whispered conversations between older girls.

Still – being imprisoned and far from home is bad enough. Girl-on-girl violence is common, dealt out of sight of the adults; truces negotiated almost in silence. The adults in charge aren’t particularly sadistic, just (“just”) arbitrarily cruel.

I get very angry sometimes and I don’t know why. It’s like a burning pain across my chest. I never used to get angry. […[ Now I’m angry all the time. (p. 47)

The relationship between Violet and her Grandma is beautiful. A letter from Grandma makes Violet’s week, and Violet always writes back in the hope that this letter might make it to her, relating adventures such as her growing story about the dog she had to leave behind, Blackie, and the revelation of wearing glasses and seeing clearly for the first time.

I woke up this morning and lay there with my eyes closed, waiting for the wake-up bell. Then I opened my eyes and say the logs in front of my face. I was never so happy!!!

I am home! (p. 143)

Highly recommended.

*Blood Upon Our Land: The North West Resistance Diary of Josephine Bouvier is the journal of a Métis girl, set at the time of the Red River Rebellion; however, there had been no story with a First Nations protagonist until now.