Written by David Alexander Robertson and illustrated by Julie Flett, When We Were Alone will be released in January of 2017 from Highwater Press. I read the ARC and can't wait to hold the final copy of this story, of a young children asking her grandmother a series of questions, in my hands.
The story is meant for young children, though of course, readers of any age can--and should--read it.
It opens with the little girl saying:
Today I helped my kókom in her flower garden. She always wears colourful clothes. It's like she dresses in rainbows. When she bent down to prune some of the flowers, I couldn't even see her because she blended in with them. She was like a chameleon.
"Nókom, why do you wear so many colours?" I asked.That child, wondering about something and then asking that "why" question is the format for the story. To this first question, her grandmother says that she had to go to school, far away, and that all the children had to wear the same colors. They couldn't wear the colourful clothes they did before they went to that school. Here's Julie Flett's illustration of the children, at school. I can't look at this illustration without my heart twisting:
Twisting at the expressions on their faces and wondering what they felt, and then I feel a different kind of emotion as I read the next page and look at the next illustration, because the grandma tells the child what they did to be colourful again. They rolled in the leaves, when they were alone:
There's a page about why she wears her hair so long, now, and why she speaks Cree, now. And, a page about being with family. Each one evokes the same thing. Tenderness. And a quiet joy at the power of the human spirit, to survive and persevere in the face of horrific treatment--in this case--by the Canadian government.
Stories of life at residential or boarding school are ones that Native people in the US and Canada tell each other. In Canada, because of the Truth and Reconciliation project, there's an effort to get these stories into print. I'm glad of that. We haven't seen anything like the Truth and Reconciliation project in the U.S., but teachers and libraries need not wait for something similar to start putting these books into schools, and into lesson plans.
When We Were Alone is rare. It is exquisite and stunning, for the power conveyed by the words Robertson wrote, and for the illustrations that Flett created. I highly recommend it.
Back to provide links to the author and illustrator's websites. Both are Native.
David Alexander Robertson