Wake The Stone Man offers glimpse into residential schools’ impact

Some stories are written overnight. Some, like Carol McDougall’s Wake the Stone Man take a little longer.

The book is actually 20 years in the making and has been percolating in McDougall’s mind over the years. There were early drafts and rewrites over the years, and the final product coming out in the same month as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report is one of pure coincidence.

Wake the Stone Man offers a glimpse into residential schools, but from an outsider’s perspective. The reader is led through the world of Molly Bell, a young girl growing up in a fictional town near Thunder Bay in the ’60s, ’70s and beyond. The story opens with Molly seeing a young girl trying to escape over the top of the chain-link fence surrounding the school, and from there, Molly’s life is forever changed. This is a coming-of-age story, not unlike the one Canadians are going through at the moment, of grappling with what happened in those schools and asking how something so atrocious could have occurred.

The narrative is loosely based on McDougall’s own adolescence growing up in Thunder Bay and her struggle to understand the schools and their impact.

“I was the young girl outside the fence looking in and not knowing what I was seeing,” McDougall says. “I did connect with a girl who later became a very good friend. I asked a lot of questions about the school and didn’t get a lot of answers. How were the communities on the outside not asking questions?”

The story is incredibly honest and, just like real life, unpredictable. The directness with which Molly deals with all that is thrown at her is, at times, admirable and, at other times, painfully understandable.

Much of the story contains little clues into McDougall’s past. She spent three winters living in the bush north of Thunder Bay, which is inspiration for Molly’s time living in a remote northern cabin realistic and makes the desire for isolation relatable. Little descriptions are taken from McDougall’s own childhood in the north, such as seeing rats bloated from spilt grain lying along the railway tracks, a personal longing to flee to a larger southern metropolis, and colloquialisms and mannerisms particular to northern Ontario.

Having grown up in the shadow the Sleeping Giant, the large rock formation which looms to the east of Thunder Bay, she says the story, just like the rock figure, has followed her wherever she’s gone. After working in children’s literature in Toronto and then working as an Arctic bibliographer at Cambridge University, McDougall came to Nova Scotia 20 years ago for work and to be closer to family, and never left. In her time here, she has continued to work in children’s literature setting up the Read to Me hospital program that give a bag of books to each newborn in the province. It’s safe to say literature is her passion.

In 2013, the novel, a departure from her usual style of children’s book received the Beacon Award for Social Justice Literature, a prize given to an unpublished work of fiction that deals with a topic of social justice.

“There’s a strength in fiction to share ideas about social justice. It’s just such a great access point for people,” says McDougall. “It gives us the opportunity to look at things from a different perspective.”

Taking a step into Molly’s world offers a glimpse into a parallel reality to the one discussed in the commission’s report, and the reader is awakened to the guilt those on the outside may have felt by their inaction or the questions they may have had.

For McDougall, the process of writing the novel has been a cathartic one and she has hope that there will be reconciliation for the Canadian and aboriginal peoples.

“We needed to know the truth. If the work of the commission continues, there can be healing. Kids today don’t know their own history. They need to know what happened.”

The messages of love, both for self and for others, forgiveness and taking responsibility are strong, and a feeling of righting wrongs continues to linger with the reader long after the book is closed.

— Halifax Chronicle Herald

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