Allison's Book Bag

Red Wolf by Jennifer Dance

Posted on: June 5, 2015

On the surface, Red Wolf by Jennifer Dance is a compelling story about an Indian boy and a wolf. On a deeper level, it’s also an unflinching portrayal of the harsh reality of Indian Residential Schools in Canada in the 1800s. Despite some flaws in plot and style, I enjoyed both aspects of Red Wolf.

Although Dance herself is not Status Indian, her daughter is married to one. This gave Dance the initial encouragement to write a story that had been on her heart for over thirty years. As part of writing Red Wolf, Dance worked with individuals within the First Nations to ensure the Anishinaabe language, beliefs, and customs were accurately portrayed. Moreover, she read research and personal stories about residential schools, as well as read accounts scrutinizing the relationship between Indian people and the church and the repercussions endured by former students of residential schools. Finally, from other Aboriginal literature that I’ve read for young people, Dance’s account of Red Wolf’s devastating experiences with residential schools rings true. There is every reason to view Red Wolf has authentic historical fiction.

Dance is also not a stranger to prejudice. While being part of a bi-racial marriage, she and her husband found themselves effected in the areas of housing and careers, and Dance even lost her husband to a racist attack. Her experiences propelled her to want to help right the wrongs of the past. It’s this passion perhaps that results in a sometimes one-sided and preachy tale. For the most part, all the white people are selfish and cruel. The priest acts out of a false belief that civilizing Natives is needed to make them Christian, the teachers admit to being there for the pay only, and an Indian agent accepted his job simply to escape England. All of them use rulers, straps, or even more violent means to achieve their goals. In contrast, Natives are portrayed as being perfect in their care of family, the land, and animals.

Some of the Aboriginal literature which I have read has been more focused. Dance tries to squeeze in an account of Red Wolf from the time he is five to an adult into a mere two hundred pages. At the same time, I appreciate that Dance provides the unique parallel of systematic destruction of wolves. Just like the Aboriginal people, the wolves were viewed as dangerous and savage. Consequently, they were shot, snared, trapped, and poisoned. Not until 2003 were wolves awarded protection. The relationship between Red Wolf and Crooked Ear, the latter being a young pup when the two first meet, is endearing and beautiful. It’s also integral to the plot. Each year, when Red Wolf leaves for residential school, Crooked Ear follows Red Wolf to the forest just opposite it. He also meets up with him every summer when Red Wolf returns home. Like Red Wolf, Crooked Ear is separated from family and find his place with strangers but struggles to remember home. Finally, both have occasion to save each other’s lives.

Some reviewers have voiced the same complaints about Red Wolf as me, as well as criticizing its simplistic style. The latter I actually think will endear reluctant readers to this adventurous tale. No matter what, a significant deciding factor for me in whether to recommend a book is how much I feel moved. And Red Wolf impassioned me. There were much better ways that white man could have negotiated with Indians, taught the English language, and shared the Christian faith. How tragic that we choose to act so savage. Red Wolf also brought to my mind the controversy that exists today regards immigrants and how much they should assimilate. If we ignore the travesty wrought to our Aboriginal people by residential schools, we might find ourselves repeating it in the future with other ethnicities. Let us instead learn from Red Wolf, so that we can have a more honorable future.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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2 Responses to "Red Wolf by Jennifer Dance"

Thanks, Allison, for lending me “Red Wolf.” Although it was written for young people, I thoroughly enjoyed the story it tells. I also enjoyed your interview with its writer, Jennifer Dance, at https://allisonsbookbag.wordpress.com/2015/06/04/interview-with-jennifer-dance/.

As well, like you, I was impassionated by “Red Wolf,” especially with my reading of it coming just after the release of the Truth and Reconciliation report (see http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/truth-and-reconciliation-commission-urges-canada-to-confront-cultural-genocide-of-residential-schools-1.3096229). As you observed, “If we ignore the travesty wrought to our Aboriginal by residential schools, we might find ourselves repeating it in the future with other ethnicities.”

On a minor personal note, the story’s focusing on Bruce County Indian Residential School–a fictitious school, as Jennifer Drane reveals on page 244 of “Red Wolf”–intrigued me, my having been born in Bruce County.

Like you, I found my reading of Red Wolf was very timely, because of the recent release of the Truth and Reconciliation program. With Red Wolf apparently being used in some schools, I could see a teacher supplementing it with other materials to discuss Aboriginal culture, social justice, and other relevant topics. Thanks for your comment!

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