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Review: Secret Path by Jeff Lemire.


Jumbie
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I just read this book after I picked it up on my recent trip to Toronto. Here's my Hondo's Exclusive take on it.

 

Short version of review: Amazing, evocative narrative art marred by suspect writing, political insertions and a sense of insincerity.

 

Detailed review: Secret Path uses art by Jeff Lemire to tell a story put together by late Canadian singer Gord Downie. It's based on the true story of Chanie AKA Charlie, a 12-year-old who died of cold and hunger trying to escape a residential school for indigenous kids in Canada.

 

Lemire's art is wintry stark for most of the book, but able to show softness in characters and focus in on fine details. He also uses color for flashbacks to good effect. There is only one word balloon in the whole book, so it relies on the ability of the art to tell a coherent story panel to panel while hinting or explicitly showing important aspects of what's going on. There are a few specific panels like a raven feather or a sequence of Chanie walking down the tracks while his matches run out that are skilfully put together while also being well placed within the larger sequence of the story. Lemire also knows how to strategically use zooms and pullbacks to channel emotion and mood.

 

Top notch art in every way.

 

The problem is in the half of the book contributed by Gord Downie. Most specifically, there is a sex abuse sequence that struck me as out of place the minute it appeared 'on-screen'. In addition, there's some far too on-the-nose Catholic church authority figures (nuns and a priest) doing other humiliating things to the kids like ear-pulling etc.

 

These things don't spoil the book in itself, mind you, but this is a tale based on recent and controversial history, being used in schools even, so veracity is worth considering.

 

Since I was bothered by the abuse scene's incongruity, I looked up the 1967 news magazine article it was based on and discovered that there was no sex abuse alleged to have been inflicted on Chanie or any of the residents at that specific school. What's more, the school was Presbyterian, with no clergy.

 

I suppose you could justify including the sex abuse and clergy as making Chanie's story a stand-in for the overall Canadian Residential school system, which did contain those elements. But I think it cheapens Chanie's personal story which is quite powerful at a factual level. The magazine article, for instance, uses the scene of the inquest, where his 3 friends (who ran away with him) talk about Chanie and the school, to paint a dramatic picture of desolate loneliness amongst the students.

 

The other thing I discovered is that Gord Downie used the publicity of the book to set up a foundation named after him first and Chanie second and it seems to be doing more for the memory of Downie than Chanie. It just makes the whole thing feel a little like the boy's life/death story is being exploited for Downie's ego. (Granted no one is making money off this as the proceeds are going charity)

 

Anyway, my final take on the whole thing is that Secret Path is worth having in my collection, and I expect I will reread it from time to time, enjoying it as a well put together piece of art, but not quite history.

Edited by Jumbie
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Yeah, the historical (in)accuracy's not my real problem now that I think of it. (I only read the book two hours ago, so I'm still reacting). 

 

The reason the clergy/abuse stuff stood out to me in the first place was that it seemed so cliche and at odds with the thrust of the rest of the story which was about isolation and memory. I lived away from home starting at nine in a very non-abusive situation and that was painful anyway. The internal struggles Lemire was depicting were really connecting to me on that level. Just seemed unnecessary to complicate it with melodrama from external sources.

 

Downie was more famous for being in the Canadian band The Tragically Hip. I like some of their music, especially after having it played at me on the radio all the time when I lived in Canada for a year.

Edited by Jumbie
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