Nicola I. Campbell, illustrated by Kim LaFave,
Groundwood Books, 2008.
Shin-chi’s Canoe follows the traumatic adventure of a young boy, Shin-chi, leaving his family to attend an Indian residential school. Before he departs, he receives a gift from his parents – a small wooden canoe – to take with him. The canoe comes with a promise that something will be waiting for him when he returns the following summer. The canoe becomes a symbol for the hope Shin-chi must have in the difficult months ahead in order to survive the separation, and adjust to life in a harsh new educational environment.
Although Shin-chi’s Canoe documents the trauma of First Nations children being rounded up and sent to residential schools, the story is not told in an overhanded way. A matter-of fact account, the story instead focuses instead on the hopeful. Yes, things are difficult and hard – an episode where the hungry children are caught thieving after food makes that evidently clear – but there is the hope of returning home and that is what sustains Shin-chi and the reader throughout the book. Therein lies the story’s brilliance: that through adversity, hope can yet prevail.
Shin-chi’s Canoe is a follow-up to author Nicola I. Campbell’s earlier book Shi-shi-etko. which also explores the world of the First Nations child, Shi-shi-etko, before her first time departure to the residential school. Shi-shi-etko is Shin-chi’s older sister and it is she who provides strength of presence and resilience to her brother as he makes his first trip to the unknown world of the school.
Together, these two books, both illustrated by Kim LaFave, provide an excellent resource for children about the residential school experience that is both memorable and haunting. Shin-chi’s Canoe has thus far been selected for the USBBY Outstanding International book for 2009 and was a finalist in the illustrator category for the Governor Generals Literary Awards for Children’s Literature in Canada in 2008.