Allison's Book Bag

Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

Posted on: June 27, 2014

Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton is my first exposure to stories about the Inuit, and it’s a good one. This true tale of Olemaun and her wish to attend a faraway residential school has drama, realistic characters, and educational value.

Set in the 1940s, Fatty Legs is an autobiographical account of a determined eight-year-old from an Inuvialuit community in the Arctic Circle. In the introduction, Olemaun writes that her nickname of “Fatty Legs” came about because of a nun who forced her to wear a pair of red stockings that made her legs look enormous—and that she made those stockings disappear. After this suspenseful teaser, which makes me want to sneak a peek ahead to the concluding pages, Olemaun backs up in time to describe a book that her sister owns which entranced Olemaun. Despite her sister’s warnings of mistreatment that will happen at the hands of the outsiders, Olemaun wants to attend the same residential school that her sister had, because that’s where she’ll learn to read. By now, I’m wondering if Olemaun will succeed in wearing down her parents with her request to go away to school, but I’m also worried that she might discover that the school isn’t what she hopes. And this was my ongoing state as I read Fatty Legs—sympathy coupled with angst.

I picked realistic characters as the second element to highlight, because sometimes books that depict atrocities resort to portraying all of the “enemy” as evil. In the case of the church-run school that Olemaun attends, the nuns and brothers could have been painted with the same brush. And perhaps this would have been a fair and accurate depiction; historical accounts have revealed that great abuse happened to the Inuit at the hands of religious leaders. And, indeed, Olemaun encounters some pretty mean characters. One is a nun named Raven, who seems bent on singling out Olemaun for punishment. There’s also a religious brother who frightens her. But there’s also a kind nun who offers Olemaun kind smiles and protection. Furthermore, Olemaun’s Inuit classmates are also not painted with the same broad stroke. Olemaun has a close childhood friend, but some of the others tease her and laugh at her. No group is shown as completely good or completely bad.

Last, Fatty Legs has educational value not just through its narrative, but also from the text features. There is an opening map which shows the route that Olemaun took to school. Scattered sidebars substitute as a glossary, in that they define Inuit words used within the text. Surreal paintings are dotted throughout the book and complement the serious tone of its narrative. In addition, many pages have thumbnails of photos that depict images from archives of Inuit life at the time of Olemaun’s story. Full-sized photos, all of them credited, form a fifteen-page scrapbook from Olemaun at the end. Finally, the extra material includes a chapter entitled “The Schools” which briefly explains how residential schools came about, their impact on the Inuit, and the current attempts at bringing healing to survivors.

Fatty Legs is the first book in a series about Christy Jordan-Fenton’s mother-in-law. It is a unique and fascinating story that give a glimpse into the way of life of the Inuit, but also contains an inspiring universal message. The four books in the set include two titles for middle grade readers (one of which is Fatty Legs) that have been adapted into two complementary picture books. I’m eager to read and review the others, but also to expand my reading about Inuit culture beyond them.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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