Northern Ontario narrative timely

Carol McDougall grew up in Thunder Bay, Ont., in sight of the Stone Man also known as the Sleeping Giant or Nanna Bijiou, a rock formation next to Lake Superior. This natural formation features in aboriginal mythology, and McDougall uses the stone man as a comforter and rescuer in her novel Wake the Stone Man.

McDougall received the 2013 Beacon Award for Social Justice Literature for Wake the Stone Man, awarded annually to an unpublished novel. Her previous work includes The Nova Scotia Guide to Frugal Living and a series of books promoting development during a child’s first year.

Her moving novel contains a realistic depiction of the needs of teenagers to escape the confines of home – especially when living in an isolated community – and the subsequent need to return as adults. Protagonist Molly Bell must travel away from her hometown of Fort McKay in northern Ontario to gradually come to terms with her feelings of loss after her parents’ abrupt death, as well as her best friend Nakina’s sudden disappearance from her life.

In turn, Nakina, an Ojibwa girl who was taken from her family as a child and placed in a residential school, must overcome the loss of her family and sexual abuse to make a life of her own.

Like many teens growing up in isolated communities, Molly feels trapped, and shares her dreams of escaping with Nakina. While living in a foster home, Nakina gets the family support she craves from Molly and her parents.

The Bells and Nakina spend part of a summer at the family’s cottage, fishing and paddling in the small boat that Molly’s father built. These days become precious memories that Molly looks back on after her parents are killed in a car crash on Christmas Eve. When Nakina doesn’t come to Molly’s parents’ funeral, Molly feels her friend has betrayed her.

However, Molly also carries a burden of guilt about Nakina, since she had previously witnessed a local police officer – one of her neighbours – raping Nakina, a crime Molly fails to acknowledge or report. As it becomes obvious to Molly that Nakina is pregnant, Nakina vanishes for five months only to suddenly reappear, waiting for Molly at her high school locker one day and acting as if nothing happened.

While Molly longs to ask her friend about the baby, it would mean admitting to Nakina she is aware of the rape, so she stays silent.

McDougall accurately captures the emotional struggle between the friends, arising mainly from their different racial and family backgrounds.

After studying art at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Molly finally returns home – an exhibition of her paintings is being shown at Fort McKay’s art gallery.

“I looked out at my old friend, the Stone Man. Always present, ever watching, ancient wisdom. He had been waiting patiently for me to come home.”

Nakina has also returned to Fort McKay, but in her case, it’s to die from cancer. As Nakina becomes weaker, Molly again dreams of the Stone Man awakening.

McDougall’s exploration of Molly and Nakina’s evolving friendship rings true, providing a satisfying reading experience.

— Winnipeg Free Press

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