A little girl and her grandmother tend a garden and as they do the girl asks simple questions about the beautiful clothing the grandmother wears, the luxurious style of her hair, the language she whispers as she feeds a bird…
The grandmother tells what life was like when she was the child’s age and still lived at home, in her “community”. She talks about friends and traditions and then refers to the school she went to, described only as being “far away from home” where things were very different. The child asks why they cut her hair, why Cree was a forbidden language and each time the grandmother offers a gentle sliver of truth, ending with some version of: “They wanted us to be like everybody else.”
The title is a reference to the instinct for their sense (and survival) of ‘self’, the small pleasures they found in things like the colour of leaves and braiding grass into their shorn hair.
I love this book for its story of courage and strength, but also for its structure, the rhythm of the questions and answers, the repetition of certain lines, especially the reference to a school that was “far away from home”… (which surely begs the question from any young reader/listener as to why it was so far away). I love the beautiful illustrations by Julie Flett (the colour palette, all rich earth tones and vivid brights alternating with the institutional monotones of muted greys and brown). But mostly I love this book because it invites children who know nothing about the history of residential schools to ask questions of their own, and so maybe, and gently, we can begin a conversation long overdue.
When We Were Alone can be purchased on-line from Blue Heron Books and Hunter Street Books, which I only mention because they’re two of my faves.