Although the tales eight year-old Olemaun (OO-lee-mawn) hears of the outsiders' school are ominous, she wants nothing more than to learn how to read. When she's finally granted permission to leave her Inuvialuit people and attend the Anglican school, nothing can prepare her for the institution's intentional humiliations, nor the ridicule of her fellow students.
While many students will recognize the bullying behaviors of Olemaun's peers, they'll be shocked to hear of the even greater torment dealt out by The Raven, Olemaun's pale-faced, hook-nosed teacher. The Raven, after all, isn't a storybook villain, but a real-life person. How could an adult charged with the care of a child be so malicious?
In what author Christy Jordan-Fenton calls a "hybrid picture book and chapter book," we are effectively transported to another world which, in reality, is not far from ours either in time or space. The setting and culture are new to readers, but the emotions and themes of the book are universal.
In addition to the book's faithfulness to its narrative, it's also beautifully written. In a scene from the first few pages, for example, we are shown Olemaun's interpretation of a book's event through the eyes of her culture:
"What's a rabbit?" I asked Rosie in our language, Inuvialuktun.
"It's like a hare," she told me, lifting her eyes from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
"Oh. Well, why did Alice follow it down the hole? To hunt it?"
In a later scene, Olemaun begs her father a final time for permission to attend the school:
"Please," I said again. "Please."
He crouched to my height. He picked up a rock with one of his hands and held it out to me. "Do you see this rock? It was once jagged and full of sharp, jutting points, but the water of the ocean slapped at it, carrying away its angles and edges. Now it is nothing but a small pebble. This is what the outsiders will do to you at the school."
"But Father, the water did not change the stone inside the rock. Besides, I am not a rock. I am a girl. I can move. I am not stuck upon the shore for an eternity."
At some level, this is a book of historical importance, decrying the attempt to wipe out the cultural roots of Native People. At another level, it's a book of social importance, condemning those who would bully and belittle the children whom they're intended to instruct and nurture. But at its highest level, I believe that Fatty Legs is a a book about a willful spirit that can't be broken. In Olemaun's own words:
The Raven thought that she was there to teach me a few things, but in the end, I think it was she who learned a lesson. Be careful what birds you choose to pluck from their nests. A wren can be just as clever as a raven.
I highly recommend this book as a read-aloud. Its characters and images will resonate with children long after you've read it. What's more tragic than bullying is the fact that discussion of it has become almost cliche. Powerful, personal accounts like this one, however, put a face on the victims. At the same time, this book will help the bullied to realize that they're only victims if they choose to be.
As far as history goes, readers should realize that although this story involves the large group of Native People collectively called the Inuit, similar and even harsher programs of "Indian education" took place in the United States. According to Charla Bear in the NPR feature American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many:
The federal government began sending American Indians to off-reservation boarding schools in the 1870s, when the United States was still at war with Indians.According to Tsianina Lomawaima, head of the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona, the intent was to completely transform people, inside and out. "Language, religion, family structure, economics, the way you make a living, the way you express emotion, everything," The government's objective was to "erase and replace" Indian culture, part of a larger strategy to conquer Indians.
An Army officer, Richard Pratt, founded the first of these schools. He based it on an education program he had developed in an Indian prison. He described his philosophy in a speech he gave in 1892.
"A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one," Pratt said. "In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."
The irony of these Indian schools, and the school described in Fatty Legs, is that in their attempt to indocrinate children in the ways of the White men, they ignored Native wisdoms and skills which were key to survival in their environment. A note in the book, for example, reports that Olemaun could operate her own dogsled team by the time she was ten. A fascinating extension to this book would be The Inuit Thought of It: Amazing Arctic Innovations, which is full of inventions which originated with these Native people, from sunglasses to snowshoes. A Native American Thought of It was featured in an earlier post on Invention.
If you'd like to read more on Native cultures, or if you intend to study them with your class, I'd recommend following Debbie Reese's excellent American Indians in Children's Literature blog. Tribal College Journal had this to say about Debbie's resources:
This premier website compiled by Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) provides plenty of Native perspectives on everything from children’s books to movies and museums. Check out the link to recommended children’s and young adult books. Books are listed by level and genre... You will also find links to Guidelines for Evaluating Websites, resources for research projects, “how to” guides, lesson plans, award winners, bibliographies, links to professional journals, various association statements about mascots, links to Native writer websites, audio and video interviews, and much more. Check this site out, and allow yourself time to browse.And on a final note, be sure to read author Christy Jordan-Fenton's biography at Annick Press. She's Jack London, Teddy Roosevelt, and Mother Teresa rolled into one!
You can also hear a podcast of Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton discussing the true-life story behind the book.