Beginning with a description of a girl climbing a fence—using simple language, and with a sense of in-the-moment immediacy and raw intensity—readers may wonder at first if this could pass as a young adult novel. When a nun yells, “Get off that fence,” and it’s apparent that the fence is an enclosure around a residential school and this unknown girl—an Ojibwe—is trying to escape, the harrowing aspects of this coming of age story begin to take hold. Mature teens may well enjoy reading this timely story, which focuses on the devastating effects of residential schooling and racism, but this is a book for an adult audience. The story begins in 1964 when Molly Bell—the “skinny as a rail” protagonist and narrator—is eleven, and it extends into her adulthood.
Wake the Stone Man is told in a simple, bare-bones style. It’s the perfect medium for conveying the Northern Ontario gruffness and matter-of-fact (gonna-skin-a-moose-now) events that punctuate Molly’s remote, sawmill town surroundings. The jarring, comical, and strange northern custom of greeting a friend with “I hate your face pretty much” is a common thread through the story, alongside Molly and Nakina’s standard conversation opener: “Hey white girl.” / “Hey Anishinaabe.” There is a beautiful calmness in this exchange as it’s repeated in the same way and, I’m convinced, the same tone, despite the train-wreck of life-changing events and tragedies that unfold. The soft greeting weaves through the curving narrative of the story like a refrain or a verse of gentle poetry. It soothes. It connects.
Molly is an avid reader with a “four-book-a-week habit” by high school. When she’s under stress, she increases her habit to a book a day. Molly is an observer who watches the ways her friend Nakina is mistreated, abused, and marginalized. But when the two teens are together, their deep connection transcends horrible events and the passing of time. Though they speak in clipped sentences full of sarcasm, mocking, and a good dose of “shut ups” and “leave me alones,” it’s clear the two share a profound understanding of one another.
Author Carol McDougall grew up in Northern Ontario and now lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. She is author of Nova Scotia Guide to Frugal Living (Nimbus, 2009) and co-author, with Shanda LaRamee-Jones, of Baby Look, Baby Play, Baby Talk, Look at Me Now! (Nimbus). McDougall is the long-time director of Nova Scotia’s Read to Me! program and a strong advocate for baby and toddler literacy. Wake the Stone Man won the Beacon Award for Social Justice Literature, a prize for an unpublished novel. The author captures 1970s northern Ontario with great authenticity through expressions used in dialogue, references to pop music, draft dodgers and brief, but chilling, mentions of the Vietnam War, including napalm bombs and a Buddhist monk setting himself aflame. McDougall’s descriptions of chopping wood, star-filled skies, bitter, bitter cold, and over-wintering in a remote, poorly insulated home with no electricity show a deep connection to the land and underline Molly’s fierce sense of determination to survive and make it, despite all odds.
Certainly, this issues-focused novel is well-timed with the growing awareness and concern for survivors of the residential schools—a terrible occurrence in Canada’s past, recently called “cultural genocide” by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s interim report.
This is a story that will stimulate important discussion. The book club notes included at the back present in-depth questions to facilitate further exploration of the story’s themes.
— Jill Bryant