CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 31. . . .April 11, 2014
In Totem, Jennifer Maruno attempts an important task – taking the stories of residential schools in Canada and bringing them to the children of this country. Personally, growing up, I only knew about residential schools from news reports on the radio about compensation and reconciliation, and without much changing in our education system, I imagine that this is a topic not covered in middle-school age curriculum, the age for which this book is clearly written. Unfortunately, Maruno plays it too safe and friendly by creating a generic school in a vaguely identifiable region of Canada, aboriginal people who don’t belong to a specific group, and by including too much magic and whimsy to properly tackle the reality of these schools and the aftermath they created.
Totem begins by introducing readers to the protagonist, Johnny, a white orphan living at Redemption Residential. As summer vacation begins, Ernie, a boy whose parents have been evading the workers attempting to take him and send him to the school, is finally taken from his family. As the only two boys at the school over the summer, they work together on a variety of projects while Johnny gets more and more unwanted and inappropriate attention from one of the priests. The two boys escape, and, when a storm hits, they take refuge in a cave that Ernie says is a traditional aboriginal place. In a flash of light, the two boys are transported back in time and are found by two people from a nearby aboriginal village. The boys are accepted by, and live with, the people without question, go on quests to find their spirit animals, witness the arrival of a European expedition, and see the village wiped out by an outbreak of what is most likely smallpox. Ernie and Johnny then return to the cave where, in another flash, they are returned to the present. They leave to find that they have only been gone overnight, and that, in the storm that took place, Redemption Residential was struck by lightning and had burned down. Ernie and Johnny, now free from the school, begin to live their own lives. Johnny lives in a cabin on a farmer’s property, and he makes a good living with his almost magically acquired skills in aboriginal carving. Photos are discovered from the expedition Ernie and Johnny witnessed while back in time that show the two boys, seemingly confirming that the time travel was, in fact, real. A story is told that implies that Johnny may have been an orphan of an aboriginal family that escaped the smallpox outbreak in the village and went on to live in the forest, cut off from contact from most of the rest of the world. Johnny and Ernie appear to be able to live happily ever after.
Susie Wilson, a recent graduate from SLIS at the University of Alberta, lives and works in Prince George, BC.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.