Carol McDougall’s novel Wake the Stone Man is a love story.
It is about a deep and enduring friendship that begins when Molly, herself just a child, first sees a young school girl, Nakina, trying to climb over a wire fence surrounding a school. Molly watches a nun call out to the girl, come and grab her to take her back into the school and then Molly turns away.
We learn later that this is a residential school and that Molly has been taken from her family in the North and all but imprisoned at this new location.
The novel is set in a fictional town called Fort McKay, but for all other purposes the town is Thunder Bay with recognizable street and place names, and the ever presence of the stone man - the Sleeping Giant - stretched out across the harbour.
Later still, Nakina and Molly actually meet each other in high school. Despite their backgrounds, Nikina is Ojibwe and Molly is non-aboriginal, a quirky friendship begins. They have a focused, friendly greeting that lasts through their adult lives: “Hey, white girl. “Hey, Anishinaabe.”
Molly, in school, discovers photography and uses it to both capture the world around her and stop the world for a instant.
McDougall, in her writing, uses Molly’s photography as a way to “freeze time and observe the complex human politics and intolerance of her home town.”
Then Nakina stops coming to high school and their friendship is unlinked, but not broken. A catastrophic fire leaves Molly’s life shattered and she leaves Northwestern Ontario to go to art school in Nova Scotia. There she excells, and in her graduation year she is accepted for a solo exhibition of her work, back in her hometown Art Gallery.
There, at the opening of her art exhibition, Molly and Nakina are reconnected.
McDougall has tackled a large canvas. She herself grew up here in Thunder Bay but left in her late teens. Parts of the novel take place in British Columbia and Nova Scotia as well as Northwestern Ontario. She grounds events in the authenticity of place and mood. The story takes place over the two decades of the sixties and seventies, and McDougall is adept at capturing local culture and the way people spoke to each other then.
Her writing is plain, spare, with few similies or metaphors or literary embellishments.
At first, I found her simple sentence structure and lack of details annoying. Gradually, McDougall’s style grew on me and I received it as the perfect way to tell this story. The heart of her story, and the enduring friendship and estrangement between Molly and Nakina, is an exploration of racism and abuse.
McDougall writes of graphic events and, in using plain language, leaves the reader to make their own judgements about what transpires. It is an effective technique.
Wake the Stone Man is a winner of the Beacon Award for Social Justice Literature.
— Chronicle Journal