Monday, 5 June 2017

Secret Path (Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire)

Secret Path written by Gord Downie and illustrated by Jeff Lemire is both an interesting collection and an interesting way to tell a story and teach some of Canada's history. It includes a book in graphic novel style, a whole album of music, and a mostly animated film. This collection follows the story of Chanie (misnamed Charlie) Wenjack and his journey of running away from a residential school in Ontario, Canada to try and get back home to his family, sadly dying along the way. The first thing that I noticed about the book before I even opened it is the size. It is a large square book measuring 12x12". The size reminded me of the large size of coffee table books. I wondered if this could mean something because it personally made me think that the size was saying that just like a coffee table book is left out in the open for everyone to see, Chanie's story should not be hidden away on a book shelf but instead be out in the open for everyone to know.

The book itself follows a pattern: a page with the lyrics to one of the songs from Gord Downie's album followed by several pages of graphic novel style illustrations with no words or dialogue (except for a "goodbye" from Chanie as he leaves his body in the end) to describe the part of Chanie's story that the song describes. This pattern is repeated for each of the other songs for a total of ten songs. Every time I came across a song as I was reading, I would read the lyrics while I actually listened to the song and then I would look at the illustrations. It was a very emotional experience. Listening to the songs that are filled with so much emotion and then seeing a visual depiction of the lyrics really makes you feel the story and understand what Chanie went through instead of simply knowing what he went through. It was great to watch the animated film after having gone through the book. It follows the same pattern of showing a visual depiction for each song. The same illustrations from the book were animated for the film and the songs are played in order while each of the visual depictions are shown. Seeing the book come alive on a screen was beautiful and even more emotional. I definitely found myself crying by the end.

The colours of the illustrations are really important to the storytelling. The illustrations in grey, black, and white show all of Chanie's sad moments and memories while all of the colourful illustrations show his happy memories. It's a great way of showing Chanie's emotions. The main setting of the story is the train tracks. As he walks along them while running away from the residential school to get back home, he has flashbacks mostly to his time in the residential school. The flashbacks start, however, with his life before the residential school when he was happy living at home with his family and from then on show all of the bad memories from the residential school. It is as though the train tracks are the trunk of a tree and the memories are branches. In the structure of the story, Chanie is thinking of all of these memories because he is running away therefore it all results from walking along the train tracks. Walking along the train tracks to get back home is the important part of the story and his memories show us why he is trying to go back home. His home is what he wants to go to and the residential school is what he is trying to get away from. Both are the reasons why he is running away. Things that he sees or are seen by us in the illustrations make the train track and memory scenes flow together with them being connected through imagery. Having the illustrations show his thoughts and feelings as he tries to go back home draws us into the story and makes us feel along with him.

I also found some of the messages and meanings hidden in the story, among the obvious message of the fact that we need to be more aware of Canada's history regarding Indigenous people, to be very interesting. "Here, Here, And Here" is a very haunting song about death. I see it as saying that we are all connected. We don't just feel, hurt, live, and die in one place but all over the place because we are connected to so many places and so many people. Another meaning that it could have could be that feeling, hurting, living, and dying happens in many parts of our body like our mind, heart, and soul. A raven shows up several times throughout the story which is important to note since the raven has a lot of symbolism in Aboriginal culture. The raven has many meanings but some of the meanings that I think are important to this story are transformation, exposing the truth behind secrets, and healing. Chanie wanted to go back home and did not want to stay at the residential school where he was taught to be something that he was not so I see him transforming as he runs away because he is figuring out who he wants to be rather than what they told him to be at the residential school. This story is showing us some of the true history of Canada that we haven't really learned about and so it is exposing the truth behind some of the history that was kept a secret. Healing will hopefully come from opening up this part of the history book for all to know and understand. At the end of the story, I thought about how Chanie needed to get back home within his own country when his own country was supposed to be his home and I feel that that is important to think about because it makes us see that this country that we see as beautiful, free, friendly, and as our home has some dark times in its history. We have begun to learn more about the things that really happened in Canada and we continue to learn and must learn more. We are now such a welcoming country to people who come here but the people who first came here from other countries weren't accepting of the people who were actually here first. This was the home of the Indigenous people and yet other people came and tried to change everything.

This is only the beginning of a conversation. There are so many stories of residential schools and all of the other difficulties that Indigenous people in Canada have faced since people from other countries came to this land. Secret Path is a powerful story and sometimes we need a powerful personal story to get us to start looking further into the situation. Just learning about the residential schools is not enough. We need to understand and really feel what happened. History has already happened but we need to learn about and understand what happened in the past so that the truth is known and things can change. We need to understand the past so that it will not be repeated. I apologize if I have misunderstood any part of the story or the messages and meanings in the story. I am always learning. I think that we need to dive deep into the story and how the collection has been presented to us to really understand and we should share our thoughts and feelings that come from experiencing this collection in order to open up conversations about what has happened in Canada.

May we continue to learn the untold history of Canada, understand, and create a better today and a better future.

Sending peace,

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