A bookseller friend (hi, Leah!) informs me that because of long awaited and long-overdue curriculum changes in BC elementary schools that place more emphasis on the residential school system, teachers are rushing out to buy books like Fatty Legs and I Am Not a Number in droves. These books are flying off the shelves like hotcakes.
It’s easy to see why.
I Am Not a Number faces that extraordinary challenge of relating history and terrible cruelty to young readers, a challenge which it handles with extraordinary success. It helps that the story’s protagonist, eight-year-old Irene, has a happy ending: at the end of their first summer home from school, Irene’s parents successfully hide Irene and her two school-aged brothers from the Indian Agent so that they do not have to return to school. Even so, the narrative conveys the overwhelming truth about the residential schools in a way that both allows young readers to manage this new knowledge, and opens their eyes to seek out more stories and more information about the residential school system and the children who endured it.
From the Afterword by Jenny Kay Dupuis:
I Am Not a Number is based on the true story of my granny, Irene Couchie Dupuis, an Anishinaabe woman who was born into a First Nation community that stretched along the shores of Lake Nipissing in Northern Ontario. [Irene’s family] didn’t have a lot of material goods, but they valued family, and that was more important than almost anything else.
Stories about the residential schools were seldom told in our community [when I was a teenager], but Granny told me hers. I felt it was important. All of the stories — told and untold — are important. They are part of our history, and they still affect many people today. This is why I wanted to share my granny’s — Irene Couchie Dupuis’ — name and her truth with you.
Here are a few more reasons why this book is excellent:
- The story opens – and closes – with a solid depiction of a loving Indigenous family. Irene, her siblings, and their parents are clearly very close. Words and pictures emphasize an affectionate family, full of trust and laughter. Their nearness and belonging leap off the page.
- Irene has a bold narrative voice. She is determined to hold on to who she is: Irene Couchie, daughter of Ernest and Mary Ann Couchie. She openly compares the misery of school with her home life. She is also open about the pain of being trapped in a school with nuns and teachers who see her as less than human and her culture and language as devilish.
“We don’t use names here. All students are known by numbers. You are 759.”
- The story shows the physical torture Irene and other students endured. In one instance, a sister presses a bedpan filled with hot coals onto Irene’s hands because Irene thanked another student in Ojibway instead of English. This is evil.
- And yet the story manages to narrate Irene’s year at school without inflicting on the reader the nausea of feeling trapped.
- It isn’t until Irene is home for the summer and sleepless from nightmare after nightmare, knowing she must return to school in the fall, that the horror hits the reader, too. This is a good point for it to happen: younger readers (this is a picturebook!) have seen the cruelty of school and now see the broader nightmare of being forced to return year after year — the reader is saved along with Irene when her parents make a plan on the very next page.
- Irene has a hand in her own rescue.
- Please understand that I am not blaming the thousands of children and their families who could not escape residential school. But it is important for a child reader to have some sense of agency. In Fatty Legs, Olemaun’s one great triumph over the Raven, her daring and cunning destruction of the red stockings, provides that sense of one’s ability to control one’s own path, in however small a measure. In I Am Not a Number, though it is Irene’s parents who come up with the plan to save Irene and her brothers, they do so because she tells them about what she endured. She tells them – and so they immediately work to save her. Irene maintains her identity enough to trust her parents and to dare to tell them the humiliation and abuse she suffered. It is her words, her courage in speaking, that enable what follows.
- One of the facts that everybody knows about residential schools is that when children first arrived, their own clothes were taken away, they were given school clothes, and their hair was cut. The story explains naturally, though Irene’s reaction, why having their hair cut was a big deal.
- Irene’s narrative voice mixes humour into the drab petty ugliness of school:
I sat with the other girls at a long wooden table, staring at the bowl of porridge in front of me. It was gray and lumpy and looked like the plaster my father had once used to fill some cracks in our wall.
- A university professor commented once when my class was studying medieval plays, that the reason for mixing in humour, even or especially crude humour (those rascally medieval playwrites and peasants!) and earthy practical details into or around scenes of most tragic pathos is that the contrast between the two emphasizes and heightens the sorrow of the main scene (which, given medieval plays, was usually somebody dying). Check one to I Am Not a Number for telling historical fact with exquisite playwriting technique.
- There is, of course, one kind nun. The story is very clear about the limits of that kindness.
- Did I mention the thematic emphasis on identity? On identity delineated by one’s family? On Irene’s close-knit and loving family?
- I Am Not a Number is a beautiful, clear-eyed story with (bonus! teachers, take note) after-the-story pages on the residential school system and on the real-life Irene Couchie.
- Yeah, that illustration? is the laughter of one girl with her father and her brothers, when they are free and home again for good.
- Highly recommended.