I have read many books about the Indian residential schools, but this one is undoubtedly one of the best. Its main character is a spirited young girl named Yaot’l Snow Goose who lives a happy life in the forests and lakes of the Canadian North West until, on a visit with her family to Yellowknife to trade furs, she is seized by force and taken far away to Fort Providence to the Sacred Heart Residential School. At the same time, her boyfriend Sascho Lynx is also captured. The novel depicts their journey from innocence to despair to hope and happiness as they manage to escape from the horrors of the school and find their way back to their families and freedom.
Though the plot may sound familiar to readers, this one contains a number of surprises. Its authors, Juliet Waldron and John Wisdomkeeper, present their extensive research within vivid scenes that will linger forever in readers’ minds. For example, I cannot think of any other book that shows the cruelty of these schools better than the writers’ depiction of the hair-cutting that takes place as soon as the Indian children enter the institution. Yaot’l waits, watching the youngsters’ hair being ruthlessly chopped off and knowing that when her turn comes, she must stand up to the enemy. When she bites one of the nuns, she is put into solitary confinement for weeks, a punishment that Waldron and Wisdomkeeper describe in harrowing detail. As Yaot’l looks out of the tiny window of her prison she sees a flock of snow geese flying south. “My own feathered family,” she thinks, “strong and free.” And then she collapses, thinking that she may never again be part of this happy band.
Her ensuing life at the school contains other horrors as well. But along with their description of the usual physical and sexual abuses, the writers offer some surprises. Many of the Indians from warring bands learn to forget their battles as they confront the priests and nuns. Not everyone associated with the institution is a monster—in fact it’s a Métis trader who uses his affiliation with the school to help Yaot’l and Sascho escape—and some of the worst bullying that Yaot’l endures comes not from the nuns but from a small coterie of Indian girls who seek praise for their cruelty from the Catholic hierarchy.
The most memorable scenes in the novel are perhaps those describing the escape of Yaot’l, Sascho, and two younger children and the suspenseful events of their long trek back to their families. As she huddles under tarpaulin in the escape boat, Yaot’l, whose name translates to Warrior, acknowledges her terror and wonders if she is no longer a warrior but merely a rabbit. Gradually, however, she regains her courage. The trader who helps the children escape returns to Yaot’l the precious knife on which her brother Charlie has carved a snow goose. At about the same time, she sees a flock of snow geese returning to their northern habitat and she knows for certain then that she will succeed in her struggles. The trader tells her and her friends, “You four are Indians again.”
It’s a lovely book from start to finish. I learned so much about the culture of these North-Western First Nation bands: their religion, their stories, their connection with the land. Most of all, I travelled with Yaot’l and Sascho on their metaphysical journey through the conflicts of life. It’s the very archetype of the journey that many of us must take in order to survive in a difficult world.
Many thanks to Ann Birch for her wonderful review of Fly Away Snow Goose!