fatty legs

“My father pulled open the door, and I stepped past him.
I was inside a school for the first time in my whole life.”
Margaret (Olemaun) Pokiak- Fenton & Christy Jordan-Fenton, co-authors,
104 pages, Ooriginal illustrations, photographic scrapbook, afterword
2011 USBBY Outstanding International Books Honor List
Margaret Pokiak-Fenton & Christy Jordan-Fenton Artwork by Liz Amini-Holmes
By forcing her to wear harsh red stockings that bag around the legs, a teacher makes Olemaun (OO-lee-mawn) who is also known as Margaret, stick out in the crowd. Others are given snug black hose to buffer the Arctic chill.
The girls discard traditional fur-and-hide warm boots & hand- crafted clothes, for a thin uniform –  jumpers, shirts, and shoes.
Taunting begins for Margaret at this residential Catholic school, with her new nickname: fatty legs.
Putting Margaret in scarlet stockings that stick out is one of the minor attempted shames in this memoir for ages 9-12, about leaving her Native family.
More chilling is a crescendo of crimes from the staff against a young spirit: refusal of an already delayed bathroom break;  refusal of playtime, while Margaret performs extra menial labor such as cleaning “honey buckets” that are nothing like their name.
It doesn’t spoil the story, one of the best 2010 non-fiction books I’ve read, to know that shame is attempted, not victorious.
This story is about a strong sprite who remembers her love of family & how that propels her to triumph over emotional sadism.
Further, it’s about recognizing an ally & it’s also about learning that what you think you want more than anything else, may disappoint when it’s attained.
The woman who experienced this schooling beginning at age eight, and her daughter-in-law who helped her craft the story,  deliver a sober account of the de-humanizing approach that was once standard in teaching outsider skills to Native, or First Peoples’, children.
The story is layered with humor & with cultural details of one childhood in one region in the Arctic part of the Northwest Territories, Canada.
It is an excellent book choice, not only for the quality of the real life storytelling but also for the many insights about the setting, people and experience Margaret endures.
A California artist LIz Amini-Holmes, gifts this book with strong images in folkloric style, which are a key element to the impact of this story saga. They detail a stark Inuvialuit (also Inuit) life, without a romanticized approach.
School scenes are also stark. Amini-Holmes’ striking portraits of Margaret, and also of the unbalanced Raven, Margarent’s name for a cruel nun, and Amini-Holmes’  contrasting images of a kind nun, Sister MacQuillan, known as the Swan, present a progression of dramatic events at school.  The palate makes the red stockings, and the ghost-white face of the mean nun, all the more striking.
At the end I stood up from my love seat reading perch and cheered for Margaret.
And frankly, I wanted to high-five Sister MacQuillan, although I also had this question:  As nun in charge, why didn’t she send the sadistic sister known as the Raven, packing back to Belgium?  Likely because Sister MacQuillan was dominated by priests who were in residence;  their depictions are similar to the Raven’s.
I find that Margaret’s spirit reminds me of Pippi Longstocking, Harriet The Spy, and other bright, independent heroines of the best children’s fiction – but the impact for the reader is that Fatty Legs packs a different power because it is real.
In the 1940s, Margaret, a real child, is isolated from her family with whom she had lived all her life in one room, in their hand-made igloo. The place that is supposed to “elevate” her into the ways of the outside world, emotionally and physically attacks her every day.
Here’s Margaret’s child-reasoning about her mind-battle with the Raven:
“I wasn’t sure what she meant to teach me, but I had something to teach her about the spirit of us Inuvialuit.”
The set-up for Margaret’s journey to the outsider world is her jealousy of her older half-sister, who has been to the school and can now read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Living on isolated Banks Island, we find a seven-year-old Margaret, season after season, begging to be sent away to school at the Mackenzie River Delta.
She finally leaves her settlement, where “the temperatures outside were cold enough to freeze bare skin in seconds.”
In her home world she had commanded her own dog sled, hunted with her father and she enjoyed the local food, such as muktuk, tiny cubes of whale blubber.
She knew almost no English. And she could read none of it.
A five-day boat ride away are the dormitories, a hospital and a church operated by priests and nuns.
Fatty Legs is written in a poetic style. I loved the imagery of birds – the mean teacher is a raven and the kind teacher who rescues Margaret at crucial moments, is a swan.
The children are plucked from their nests.
Mean girls at school who are from another Native group that is actually known to be unfriendly to Margaret’s people, are hatchlings.
This sort of cultural complexity is one of the many strengths of this story that transports us to a system not often covered well in children’s literature – the Native boarding school.
Fatty legs was issued late in 2010 and will surely gain more and more attention as devoted readers share the gold it holds.
Yay! for Oulemaun (Margaret)  Pokiak-Fenton.
Kit Lit Celebrates Women’s History Month
You may also want to see Kid Lit Celebrates Women’s History month, (the March 6, 2011 post) about a book on a different child who also went away from her Native family because, like Oulemaun Margaret Pokiiak, she wanted to receive a formal education.


One response to “fatty legs”

  1. This book sounds wonderful. Jan, you are such a strong and persistent advocate for voices and stories from outside the mainstream in both your own writing and the books you choose to highlight here. Bravo!

    Adrian Fogelin


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