Children's Book Review: I am Not a Number
I Am Not a Number, by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, powerfully bears witness to the experiences of Dupuis’ grandmother at a residential school. In 1928, Irene Couchie and her two brothers are forcibly removed from their Nipissing First Nation home by a government agent, and sent to a faraway Catholic boarding school. Told from Irene’s point of view, she unflinchingly describes the dehumanizing treatment and abuse she suffers. After being stripped of her name (“All students are known by numbers. You are 759”), and ordered to “scrub all the brown off” in the shower room, her long, black hair is unceremoniously cut off. When Irene whispers to another student in Ojibway, she is forced to hold a bedpan full of burning coals as punishment. The Couchie family is reunited in the summer, and Irene’s parents refuse to allow their children to ever be taken away again.
The physical and emotional pain Irene endures is palpable in Gillian Newland’s evocative watercolour illustrations. A meagre bowl of grayish gruel and a stale piece of white bread austerely sits on a long wooden table. In sharp contrast to these sombre scenes are the joyful images of Irene, in a sunny yellow dress, enveloped in her father’s warm embrace.
An author’s note discusses the grim legacy of residential schools. Readers are also intimately afforded more personal details about the life of Irene Couchie, daughter of Ernest and Mary Ann Couchie. I Am Not a Number tells a heartbreakingly honest and important story that all Canadians must hear.
Linda Ludke is a librarian at London Public Library. Her reviews have appeared in Quill and Quire, School Library Journal and CM: Canadian Review of Materials. When she’s not reading and writing she also loves searching for vintage treasures.
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