Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘Christy Jordan-Fenton

Not My Girl by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton is an adaptation of A Stranger at Home, which depicts the struggles which Olemaun faces as she attempts to rediscover her place within her Inuit community and her family after being apart from them for two years. Because I have read both books, as I review Not My Girl, I will also be comparing and contrasting the two versions.

I’ll start with what I liked about Not My Girl. It contains a couple of particularly touching subplots. The first involves dogs. Neither those belonging to the community or to the family recognize her scent. When Olemaun attempts to reconnect with the dogs, she is greeted with snarls and snaps. Her father advises that she needs to give them time. One day, Olemaun snatches up a puppy from the family’s pack of dogs and takes him with her on a walk to see a friend. When she doesn’t get to see her friend, Olemaun spends the day playing with the puppy at the beach, forgetting about the fact the puppy is still of the age that it needs milk from its mother. The second involves Christmas. Her brother receives a train and her sister a porcelain doll. When Olemaun’s parents ignore her wish for similar toys, she breaks down and cries. She tried so hard to belong but obviously failed. Or so she believes.

Not My Girl also contains vividly descriptive language and would serve as an excellent mentor text. Consider this simile: “It was as though the wings of one thousand birds soared in my heart.” It’s followed up with this metaphor: “The birds in my heart fell to the sky.” Fenton carries the bird image further: “I wondered what kind of bird I had become. I no longer felt like I belonged to this flock.” Later, readers are treated to this description of the northern lights: “…. where the iridescent fronds of the northern lights danced down from the sky.” Again, Fenton extends the image to portray how Olemaun feels. “Grandmother once told me that if I whistled to them, their tendrils would reach down and snatch me away. I whistled until my lips hurt, but they ignored me.”

Next, I’ll turn to what I didn’t like about Not My Girl. Even more so than her first attempt at a picture book, I feel as if Fenton merely abbreviated the original story instead of creating a new one to fit its unique format and audience. For me, the introduction doesn’t quite hit the mark. It feels rushed, summative, and even leaves out important facts. I know that Olemaun has been to an outsiders’ school, where she learned to speak English and other academic skills, and that her mother views her as a stranger. If not for having read Fenton’s earlier books, however, I wouldn’t know what Olemaun had been to a white man’s school, why that was problematic for her, or how horrific that experience had been. For readers new to Fenton’s books, Not My Girl may not provide enough context for them to fully appreciate it.

My second complaint is that upon first read, Not My Girl feels episodic and not unified. Rereading it, I finally comprehended that Fenton choose to emphasis Olemaun’s relationship with the local dogs. Both her estrangement from and acceptance by the dogs parallels the reaction of the community and her family to Olemaun. In A Stranger at Home, a lot more details are included such as the shyness displayed by her siblings when Olemaun attempts to play with them, the family’s decision not to return to Banks Island, and her mother’s recognition that the white man’s ways are changing their culture despite the family’s protest. Fenton has eliminated all of those, focusing mainly on the dogs, which will I realize appeal to younger readers. However, Fenton’s story still feels overwhelming to me as an adult, which means I suspect young readers will need an adult to guide them through it.

Although Not My Girl may prove difficult for its audience without support, both of Fenton’s picture books stood out to me as suitable mentor texts. They are rich in language and beautifully illustrated. Each would make an excellent addition to schools, while Fenton’s chapter books could be enjoyed by young readers themselves.

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

How would you rate this book?

A Stranger at Home is the third true story by Christy Jordan-Fenton about the impact which residential schools had on her mother-in-law Margaret Pokiak-Fenton. It’s also my favorite thus far in the series. A Stranger at Home poignantly portrays the struggles which Olemaun faces as she attempts to rediscover her place within her Inuit community and even within her family, both of which Olemaun has been apart from for two years.

Although Olemaun had been desperate to return home, she now finds herself just of much of an outsider among her own people as she had been at the church-run school. When her parents pick Olemaun up to take her home, Olemaun finds the Inuit language strange to her tongue. Her mother assumes Olemaun will be hungry and so she brings a package of what used to be Olemaun’s favorite foods. However, two years of eating only the white man’s food have taken their toll on her body and the food which once brought Olemaun comfort now sicken her and cause her nose to crinkle. When the family finally reach their canvas tent, the family dogs almost take Olemaun’s hand off because they no longer recognize her scent. Nothing feels the same anymore, not the hour her family rises or the games her sisters play or even the clothes everyone wears.

On some levels, because of my relocating from Canada to the United States, I relate to Olemaun’s attempts to hold onto her heritage. The minute I cross into my home province of Newfoundland, after being away for a year, I start soaking up the unique accent. I also start searching out local foods. There are also naturally changes in family. Although my dog whom I left with my parents is now gone, the first year I returned home after a long absence, he growled at me. Moreover, my siblings were in primary school when I initially left home, which means every year I return being less and less connected to their world. Hence, part of the appeal of A Stranger at Home is that whether one has moved simply from a town or whether one has taken the bigger step of embracing a new culture, everyone will find common ground with Olemaun and will be subsequently moved.

What compounds Olemaun’s struggles is that her family has decided not to return to Banks Island, where they normally spend most of their year. Moreover, they are feeling the pressure of needing to adapt to the white man’s world. Olemaun’s father is picking up extra work as a special constable to the RCMP, who rely on his skills to help them adapt in an environment colder that what they are familiar. Olemaun’s mother doesn’t understand the store clerks who speak English, which means she is often charged for goods that she didn’t purchase. Last, the government is continuing to encourage Inuit parents to send their children to school. While Olemaun had to years ago convince her parents to send her away, now they want her sisters to attend because they need not just the wisdom of their people but also the knowledge of the outsiders. I have not read many stories about those who both want to hold onto their heritage, while embracing that of an alien culture, and so this is another positive about A Stranger at Home. It helped me understand how challenging the situation can be and should resonate strongly with immigrants who do face this dilemma.

Years ago, Thomas Wolfe made popular the sentiment, “You can’t go home again”. While the end pages of A Stranger at Home make clear that many Inuit children such as Olemaun have proved this phrase wrong, Olemaun’s story also shows how hard of a fight it was to reclaim their heritage. Today Aboriginal people are trying to provide support through classes in traditional language, instruction by elders on customs, and celebration of culture through powwows, traditional arts and crafts, and stories like those told by Christy and Margaret. A Stranger at Home is an amazing story about the resilience of a special Inuit girl.

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

How would you rate this book?

When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton is an adaptation of Fatty Legs, in which Olemaun recollects her negative experiences in a church-run residential school. Because I have read both books, as I review When I Was Eight, I will also be comparing and contrasting the two versions.

I’ll start with what I liked about When I Was Eight. The well-crafted writing style stands out more in When I Was Eight. There are many active verbs, such as “shrugged” and “begged”. In addition, there’s a lot of figurative language, such as “the sun slept” and “slumbering ice”. The strong word choices exist in Fatty Legs too, but they feel more prevalent and significant in a picture book. When I Was Eight would make for an excellent mentor text in elementary schools.

When I Was Eight is also more focused than Fatty Legs. The latter is about Olemaun (Margaret’s Inuit name) and her family, her friends, her desire to read, her conflicts with a mean nun and brother, and more. In contrast, When I Was Eight is solely about Oleman’s determination to read enabling her to withstand all forms of abuse from a nameless nun. In fact, the story is so tightly told that it develops a fairy tale quality, where the young heroine must battle an evil grown-up. Because of its overt theme, teachers could use When I Was Eight to help reluctant readers see how the power of books can change them.

Next, I’ll turn to what I didn’t like about When I Was Eight. Due to the brevity of text required of a picture book, some important details were left out. For example, When I Was Eight tells readers that Olemaun enters the laundry room, stands beside a huge vat, and then “gets an idea” about how to get rid of the red stockings. In contrast, Fatty Legs tells readers tells how a tear vanishing into bubbling water gives her that idea.

In my review of Fatty Legs, I highlighted its realistic characters because sometimes books that depict atrocities resort to portraying all of the “enemy” as evil but Fatty Legs avoided that trap. Well…. as I review When I Was Eight has eliminated the friend who provided support to Olemaun, and the kind nun, and really anyone who seemed nice. Instead Olemaun is on her own in her determination to read.

Some critics have lamented the absence of a historical note in as I review When I Was Eight . I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, in Fatty Legs I greatly appreciated the scrapbook and other supplementary material that provided context for the story. I ended up wanting to read more Inuit stories. On the other hand, the historical notes meant while reading Fatty Legs I remained keenly aware that I was learning about a real time and a real place. Whereas, as I noted above, When I Was Eight was more like a fairy tale.

Both approaches serve a purpose, as does having two versions that are intended for different readers. Each book provides a glimpse into the way of life of the Inuit, while also containing an inspiring universal message. There are two more books in the set, another chapter and picture book combo. It’ll be interesting to see what Christy Jordan-Fenton writes next about her mother-in-law’s experiences of growing up Inuit.

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

How would you rate this book?

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?

ChristyJordanFentonChristy Jordan-Fenton was born on a farm in rural Alberta. Her only dreams were to be a cowgirl, to dance with Gene Kelly, and to write stories. She grew up being aware of how her step-father’s experiences as a Native affected both his life and the lives of her step-siblings. This made her passionate about Native rights. Thus, Christy felt blessed to have the opportunity to hear her Inuvialuit mother-in-law’s residential school experiences and to write about them. Besides fulfilling her to dream to become a writer, she is also a performing cowgirl poet and a student of natural horsemanship. She has yet to dance with Gene Kelly.

Christy Jordan-Fenton and her mother-in-law Margaret Pokiak Fenton began publishing stories in 2010. Their four books include two titles for middle grade readers, Fatty Legs and A Stranger at Home, which were then adapted into two complementary picture books, When I Was Eight and Not My Girl. I was able to catch Christy for an interview before she left to attend Sundance and it appears below. We have talked about my asking some follow-up questions specifically about her books, as well as her doing a blog post, later in the summer. Stay tuned for my reviews over the next week!

ALLISON: In five sentences, describe life growing up on a farm.

CHRISTY: As a child, apart from my little brother, I didn’t really have many two-legged friends. One birthday I woke up and was sent out to the grain shed where a new horse was waiting for me. Often when we were hit with a late spring storm, we wound up with sheep and calves in our bathroom, much to my mother’s dismay. There was a lot of wide open space to be independent and get lost in the space between nature, imagination, and the metaphysical world. When we had to move to the city, it was hard to find that world again, except for in books, because the noise was so overwhelming.

ALLISON: Do you prefer smaller or bigger places? Why?

CHRISTY: I’m really torn between this. I love small towns and small places where there is a real sense of community. But I am adventurous and nomadic by nature and I love cities full of eclectic culture and eclectic people and all there is to explore in that. I think in an ideal world, I would spend a lot of time travelling and seeking out the cohesive communities within large cities, but I would have a small off the grid cabin somewhere with my horses and my dogs to come home to.

ALLISON: You used to write poetry and read during classes. How else would you portray yourself as a student?

CHRISTY: I was an awful student! Unless it was history, writing or art. Then I was an insanely passionate student. So much so that it also made me an awful student. I would have been a perfect candidate for unschooling. I had no lack of drive, it just had to be on my terms and I wasn’t very good at reining myself in. I got in trouble a lot. I was bored a lot and didn’t deal so well with authority.

ALLISON: Why did you join the infantry reserve? What did you gain from the experience?

CHRISTY: I suppose I read too many books written by the Lost Generation. I already knew for certain I would be a writer, but I also knew I would need life experiences to write about. I think my experience in the army helped me understand what Margaret went through much better, because women were very rare in the infantry (even reserves) at that time (and still aren’t allowed in any combat arms most places in the world). I went through a lot. But the thing I gained the most is that I tested just how much I could take and learned it a lot. That has been a wonderful gift to carry with me. When life gets trying, I know I can hang and get through it. I’m not scared of challenge.

ALLISON: What were the highlights of attending university in Australia?

CHRISTY: Hands down it was the rugby. I played lock for the University of Queensland team and we won the States at Ballymore which is where the Queensland Reds play. I also loved how friendly everyone in Brisbane was. I met so many wonderful people. And I rode a camel to watch the sun rise over Uluru. Stunning.

ALLISON: What were the highlights of living in South Africa?

CHRISTY: Everything was so fresh and new to me and the opportunities for adventure were boundless. I spent time in the townships and learned to navigate my way across Cape Town via min-bus taxi which is a very haphazard and not so safe system of transportation but made for some great stories. I knew a spot where you could swim with penguins also, and I loved that. And when the whales are calving in Hermanus it is one of the most spectacular things I have seen. What I miss the most is the street children though. I miss reading to them and cuddling them.

ALLISON: Why did you end up calling Western Canada home?

CHRISTY: I had always planned to return to Alberta, but my path kept leading me other places. I came home from South Africa weary and overloaded and I think getting back to the prairies is what I really needed. I live in BC now, but it is right next door to AB and on the eastern side of the Rockies. It’s similar terrain to where I grew up. Prairie near the mountains. I think there are certain places that just get in our bones and no matter how nomadic we may be, they will always call us back.

ALLISON: What inspired you to tell the stories of your mother-in-law?

CHRISTY: The places I lived when we moved to the city were full of residential school survivors. The tragic legacy had an enormous impact on the families and the people around me. While many Canadians don’t know about residential school even today, and even fewer Americans know about Indian Boarding School, I grew up knowing, and knowing hardly anyone outside of the indigenous community knew. When Margaret told me the story of what she did with her red stockings when she went to residential school, it was the first story of triumph I had ever heard come out of such a place. I knew right away that it was a story that could be told to all ages and was a good place to start introducing people to what happened at the schools. And Margaret had so many stories, we couldn’t just stop at one, so we kept on going.

ALLISON: You’re described as having “a desire to raise your children with a healthy sense of self-esteem rekindled her passion for Native issues”. What would you consider to be the dominant issues?

CHRISTY: Education is a huge one here in Canada. Indigenous children’s education is grossly underfunded and in many communities children must leave home after primary school to continue their education. Shannen’s Dream is a wonderful cause, started by a young Cree girl Shannen Koostachin who wanted “safe comfy schools for everyone.”

A major tragedy that has affected my community in particular, but is a nationwide problem, is the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women. It is estimated that 1,200 women have gone missing or been murdered since the 1980s. To put that in perspective, if the same statistics applied to all women, there would be 50,000 missing and murdered, and contrary to many assumptions, a large part is not being perpetrated by indigenous people.

Another one that affects both sides of the border is a problem with access to clean drinking water. It is a problem from Navajo Land to Inuvik. Here, it is estimated that one-third of people living on reserves/reservations are without clean drinking water. I am not sure the statistics in the US, but I know they are also quite high.

ALLISON: What’s next in your writing career?

CHRISTY: I am working with Native Music Hall of Fame inductee Keith Secola on his metaphysical Rock Opera, Seeds which has been a great honor because the story takes place in a world so rich and colorful it completely consumes and stimulates my imagination, and the story has so much to say…. I am also working on a novel for adults about post-apocalyptic hobos…. among other things. I am the kind of writer who likes to work on many things simultaneously.

Below is a music video with which Christy was involved. It is up for an Aboriginal People’s Choice award.

Allisons' Book Bag Logo

Thank You!

Allison’s Book Bag will no longer be updated. Thank you for eight years!

You can continue to follow me at:



Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 127 other followers