________________ CM . . . . Volume XX Number 31. . . .April 11, 2014



Jennifer Maruno.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2014.
166 pp., trade pbk., ePub & PDF, $10.99 (pbk.), $8.99 (ePub), $10.99 (PDF).
ISBN 978-1-4597-1934-7 (pbk), ISBN 978-1-4597-1936-1 (ePub) ISBN 978-1-4597-1935-4 (PDF).

Grades 3-7 / Ages 8-12.

Review by Susie Wilson.

* /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



Johnny liked the sound of those words – wilderness wisdom – especially since he had none of it. He would like to get to know this girl better. Maybe she could teach him a few things.

He spied Ernie crouching by the side of the path.

On the branch of a pine, a small bird covered in white feathers clucked in contentment. Its hooded eyes were half shut. Ernie rose and fired his slingshot in the direction of the tiny clucks.

The owl’s round yellow eyes flew open. It teetered for a minute and tumbled down.

“Got him,” Ernie crowed. “We can take him to…”

“You’re not taking him anywhere,” Silver Cloud said. “He already belongs to someone.” She placed the cage on the ground beside her and opened the door.


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.

      There are so many issues, big and small, that came up over the course of this book that took it further and further away from being a good story and resource to teach children about this often ignored part of our history as Canadians. Without the area or the aboriginal group represented in this story being identified, it is impossible to know if the people are being represented truthfully; there is an appendix in the back giving translations of ‘Chinook jargon’, the language spoken by all aboriginal groups in the Pacific Northwest when interacting with traders, giving a better idea of the region, but still keeping the actual setting vague. Silver Cloud, the healer from the village in the past, keeps an owl in a cage, which is something that no aboriginal group that I am familiar with would have done. At one point in the story, Johnny literally speaks to a wolf in a chicken coop to calm it and save the animals. These are a few examples of use of the “Magical Indian”, a trope prevalent in disrespectful depictions of aboriginal people, that occur throughout this book.

      Creating Johnny, a white orphan, as a protagonist in this story takes away from the main harm done by residential schools: the removal of children from the families and the eradication of their culture. Orphans are already without family and cultural history, and so it is apparent that the conditions of the residential school have less of an impact on Johnny for these very reasons. While in many cases the actual events taking place at residential schools would be too dark to be appropriate for the age group at which the book is aimed, there are many ways in which a truer version of events could have been written.

      While the actual content and level of research and respect given to the subject matter in this book are lacking, Maruno’s writing is clear, flows easily, and is definitely perfect for the age group at which this book is targeted. Totem sets out to tell a story of children in a residential school, but it is too magical, sanitized, and distanced from the truth of what happened to be a worthwhile introduction to the subject matter.

Not Recommended.

Susie Wilson, a recent graduate from SLIS at the University of Alberta, lives and works in Prince George, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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