Book Review: Wenjack by Joseph Boyden

Wenjack - Joseph Boyden (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)
Wenjack – Joseph Boyden (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

Joseph Boyden is easily one of the best Canadian writers currently being published and I’m a big fan. His latest offering is much shorter than his three previous works – I read Wenjack in two sittings over a couple of days – but brings forth all his familiar talent.

What sets this brief story apart from Boyden’s previous work is that it is based on a true story. The story of residential schools and the snatching of First Nations children from their homes is perhaps the sorriest and most horrifying of Canadian history. In recent years, many survivors have come forward to speak about the abuse suffered at these schools. The effects are tragic and far-reaching. Unfortunately, this is hardly even history. Chanie Wenjack died in 1966. The last residential school closed in 1996.

Boyden brings this true story to life, gently and beautifully, in less than a hundred pages. The book alternates perspectives between Chanie and the spirits of the forest who follow him on his journey. The narrative voices are excellent – clearly and simply defined – and, as always, Boyden excels at description.

Obviously in such a short book there is a lot left out – and there’s much we’ll probably never know about Chanie’s life and death. But Wenjack is a powerful glimpse and a place to start for some who may not know much about this aspect of Canadian history.

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