Jules' Tools for Social Change: Wake the Stone Man; an interview with Carol McDougall

September 17, 2015 by Julia Horel

Welcome to this month’s edition of Jules’ Tools for Social Change, a column that features a book, author or publisher whose work deals with issues of race, gender, sexuality, ability, colonialism, economic justice, or other social justice topics.

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Dear Reader,

Welcome to this month’s edition of Jules’ Tools for Social Change, a column that features a book, author or publisher whose work deals with issues of race, gender, sexuality, ability, colonialism, economic justice, or other social justice topics.

This month’s featured title is  Wake the Stone Man, by Carol McDougall, from Roseway Publishing.

Wake the Stone Man is a coming-of-age story of Molly, who is white, and Nakina, who is Ojibwe.

From the publisher: “Set in a small northern town, under the mythical shadow of the Sleeping Giant, Wake the Stone Man follows the complicated friendship of two girls coming of age in the 1960s. Molly meets Nakina, who is Ojibwe and a survivor of the residential school system, in high school, and they form a strong friendship. As the bond between them grows, Molly, who is not native, finds herself a silent witness to the racism and abuse her friend must face each day.

In this time of political awakening, Molly turns to her camera to try to make sense of the intolerance she sees in the world around her. Her photos become a way to freeze time and observe the complex human politics of her hometown. Her search for understanding uncovers some hard truths about Nakina’s past and leaves Molly with a growing sense of guilt over her own silence.

When personal tragedy tears them apart, Molly must travel a long hard road in search of forgiveness and friendship.”

I interviewed author Carol McDougall about writing as an observer, the research involved in creating this story, and the roles of forgiveness and hope in reconcilation.

‘Til next time,

Julia

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Julia Horel: What is the Stone Man?

Carol McDougall: The Stone Man in the novel is actually the Sleeping Giant, a formation of rock that forms the figure of a man lying across the Thunder Bay harbor. I grew up in Thunder Bay and when you live there the Sleeping Giant is omnipresent and dominates the landscape. In Ojibwe mythology, the Sleeping Giant is the Great Spirit Nanabijou, who lay down across the harbour and turned to stone when he was betrayed. When I was young, I thought the Sleeping Giant was a real, living presence, and I wanted to bring that vision into the novel. The Stone Man sits at the heart of the novel, both literally and figuratively as a primal force, solid and unchangeable and witness to the ever-changing world around him. Wake the Stone Man is the story of how the lives of two girls connect and intertwine under the watchful eye of this compassionate spirit.

JH: Wake the Stone Man is a coming-of-age novel. The book's protagonist, Molly, is a white girl growing up in Northern Ontario who befriends an Indigenous girl, Nakina, in a residential school. Why did you choose to write this story from the perspective a non-Indigenous character?

CM: Like Molly, I grew up in a small northern town, and as a young girl I stood on the outside of the fence of a residential school looking in. I asked questions about the school, but got no real answers. It was only years later that I began to learn the truth. In high school my closest friend was Ojibwe and a survivor of that same residential school, and over time she told me things she had experienced there. I was shocked and deeply saddened at the abuse she’d had to endure, and her stories haunted me. At that time, in the 1960’s and 70’s, much of the truth of the cultural genocide of the residential schools was hidden.  There was a conspiracy of silence at very high levels. I left Thunder Bay in my late teens and travelled around the world, but I found that I carried the stories of my childhood with me. I knew that I wanted to write about that time, but the point-of-view had to be honest  – I had to write it from where I had stood all those years ago – on the outside of the fence, looking in.

JH: How much and what kinds of research went into the writing of this book? What was the writing process like, and did it differ from that of your other books?

CM: Much of Wake the Stone Man is woven from my own life experience. As a coming-of-age novel I wanted to capture that transformative time when the world seems to shift and we leave innocence behind and form the values we carry into adulthood. I remember a few moments in my own life when that Gestalt shift happened. One was when I was in my teens, working at the Thunder Bay museum,  I came across letters and documents about the St. Joseph’s Residential School. I read a letter from a mother whose son had been taken from their northern reserve and had died in the residential school. She wrote that she had learned her son had been forced to scrub floors while ill with the measles and was not given any medical treatment. Attached to her letter was the brutal response from the school inspector who said: “your son was made to wash floors as part of his regular school duties. You can be pleased that the school is kept clean and sanitary.” That heartless response said so much about the attitude of church and state towards First Nations children. I kept copies of those documents from the museum and years later used them directly in the section of Wake the Stone Man where Molly reads the documents she found at the library.

I really struggled to find the right style to tell this story. The writing is spare, which is intentional. I wanted to pare back the writing so it would feel raw and immediate, bringing the reader face-to-face with the characters. To accomplish this, I wrote thousands of pages, then carved back the writing to find the true emotional core of the story. It was a "less is more" approach to the writing.  There was a certain risk in creating a more minimalist style, but I think it intensified the emotional impact.

I do a lot of my writing at Two if By Sea, my local coffee shop. I like to write in the middle of loud busy places. I’m not sure why I can write well in coffee shops, but I think it has to do with being forced to focus and shut out the distractions around me in order to get into the flow of the writing. After a few hours, I lose myself in the writing and sometimes I’m startled when I look up and realize I’m surrounded by people. For me there is nothing more magical than being lost in the writing.

JH: What is the significance of Molly's passion for photography in the story?

CM: Molly is an observer. She’s shy and invisible and likes to fade into the background and observe the people around her. By giving her a love of photography, I created a way for her to be a dispassionate observer, viewing the world from behind the lens of a camera. In the beginning, the photos were a way of stopping time and observing all the layers of connection and disconnection in her small town. In time, the photographs became reference material for something more. As Molly grew as an artist, she used the photographs to explore, question her world and ultimately find her voice. I believe that through writing, painting, photography – through all of the arts – we can see the world more clearly and become more fully human.

JH: What, if anything, can Wake the Stone Man teach non-Indigenous Canadian settlers, like myself, about reconciliation? What are our responsibilities?

CM: Wake the Stone Man follows Molly’s long and difficult journey to find forgiveness for staying silent while Nakina faced racism and abuse. In some ways the novel mirrors our country’s own journey towards reconciliation and healing. It will be a long journey. The harm done to First Nations people happened over many generations and it will take many generations and a commitment by all Canadians to heal. Chief Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said, “reconciliation is not an Aboriginal problem – it is a Canadian problem. It involves all of us.” For readers who want to learn more about how they can participate in the process of reconciliation, there’s great information on the TRC website at www.trc.ca.

The novel Wake the Stone man is about forgiveness, and hope. And that brings me full circle, back to your very first question, “what is the Stone Man?” The Stone Man is symbolic of a powerful spirit of compassion that has been asleep for millennia. Waking the Stone Man brings that force back to life. It wakens the primal power of forgiveness and love that can transcend all barriers. The message of Wake the Stone Man is that whatever choices are made, whatever roads are taken, whatever harm is done, there is always hope for reconciliation and healing.


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