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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Reader's Diary #1443- Gord Downie (writer) and Jeff Lemire (artist): Secret Path

It took perhaps a little longer than expected, as I suspect people were weighing their need to criticize against the fact that Gord Downie is dying, but it was still not long before controversy followed his Secret Path project, a graphic novel account of the real life Charlie Wenjack and his fatal escape from residential school.

The two main arguments against it were along the lines of 1. Gord Downie is white and what the hell does he know about life at residential school and 2. this book is getting a lot of attention considering there are tonnes of pre-existing books about residential school, written by those that actually experienced it.

I am not knocking either argument. The right to tell a story from another's perspective is a very topical issue with many nuanced arguments. I can say that I have read other residential school stories, from actual survivors, and Secret Path felt similar both in terms of details and emotions. That said, everyone's experience was different and who knows what Charlie Wenjack actually felt? We can assume he was miserable based on his need to risk his life to escape, but there is something presumptuous about Downie and Lemire giving him a voice and with the legacy of exploitation by white people, I'm not 100% sure that they should have. I should note that proceeds from the book are donated to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

As for the attention the book has gotten, much of it had been through the CBC who had just had a high from producing the televised last concert of the Tragically Hip. Gord Downie and to a lesser extent Jeff Lemire are very well known. There's certainly an argument that the others who have written about residential schools should also be well known (Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, Larry Loyie, Albert Canadien, and so on), but I also don't want to sell the talent of Downie or Lemire short. I am a huge fan of both and there is no doubt that Downie has a talent to tell a story in a poetic way, no doubt that Lemire can set a mood and capture emotions in an expression. There was a safe bet that, from an artistic point of view, Secret Path was going to be a quality product. That it is.

One issue I had with the book, completely unrelated to any of the controversy, is the ridiculous size. Perhaps it's because of the vinyl resurgence, also because the book was released with music, that they made it the same exact dimensions of an album case, but it's an incredibly awkward thing to hold or even to find shelf space for.

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