I awoke the morning after finishing reading this book the evening before, just before I went to sleep, with a very poignant, and powerful, scene being acted out on the movie screen of my waking mind. I saw a drunk and disheveled old Native guy, someone I hadn’t previously met, sitting alone on a bench in a city park. Normally, if I’d come across a guy like that, I would have just let him be, and gone on my way. But that’s not what happened this time.
I observed him for a while, realizing, oddly (we hadn’t previously met), that this was a guy who had many interesting stories to tell, and who was a good story-teller, and I wanted to hear those stories. I also knew that, due to the drink, and his age, and a possible desire to preserve his dignity, I shouldn’t expect that his stories would be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But I wanted to hear his stories anyway, and to share a park bench with him and savour his warmth and gentle humour, so I went over to join him. I sat down, and we started to talk. Then I got up … up out of bed, that is, only because it was a workday and I had to get to work.
Critically-minded readers who read “The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir” looking for just further evidence of the indignities and abuse suffered by residential school students are likely to find this book disappointing–at least initially. Augie Merasty, a survivor of nine years at the St. Therese Residential School in Sturgeon Landing, whose handwritten stories of his experiences at the school written over several years comprise the basis of this book, is not, as I think any reasonable person would acknowledge, an entirely reliable narrator.
Age, drink, and the fact that, at least when he began his project of recording stories from his days at St. Therese, he was likely to have been aware that he stood to gain financially by presenting a dark picture, all lend suspicion to his account. (Augie began to record his stories in the late 1990s as evidence to be used by lawyers in the first stage of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that led to a 1.9 billion federal government settlement package, implemented in 2007, for survivors of the residential schools.)
A further, related, problem, is that, although Augie is still alive, he apparently is now too sick (from cancer) to do television interviews and other kinds of personal appearances that could lend credibility to his case. We’re unable to watch Augie, and to listen to his actual voice, as he relates his stories–unlike when we watched, and listened to, selected survivors of the residential schools presenting their videotaped testimonies as part of the wrap-up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on June 2, and knew, with certainly, that they were telling the truth and, furthermore, knew, with certainty, what a devastating experience this had been for them.
In addition to these problems related to Augie himself, there are problems related to how this book was put together. A professional writer, David Carpenter, formerly a teacher in the English Department at the University of Saskatchewan, considerably helped Augie in bringing to fruition his dream of publishing his memoir as a book. As Carpenter reveals in the relatively lengthly introduction to this slim volume (about a third of which consists of the Introduction), he had to do a great deal of editing to corral the various prose passages and letters that Augie provided, over a period of several years, into a coherent, publishable, book. A question arises, as it inevitably does with this kind of collaboration, regarding who actually contributed what to the finished work.
Often, in the main section of the book that is supposed to be Augie’s memoir, the language is jarring, not at all in keeping with how a Native guy who did learn how to read and write at St. Therese’s but who spent most of his working life as a fisherman and trapper would be expected to communicate. For example, would Augie really have referred to himself and his pals at school as “me and my fellow reprobates?” Or would he really have said of a particularly sadistic nun at St. Therese, “I cannot say enough to vilify her name”? Problems like this with the language used to relate Augie’s experiences dilute the credibility of the experiences themselves.
But, of course, if Carpenter hadn’t done a great deal of work on Augie’s ‘manuscript’ to make it publishable, including sometimes interjecting his own vocabulary, and sensibilities, this book would never have been published.
Despite these ‘weaknesses’, assuming that readers come to this book with the usual preconceptions and expectations–that its publishers, unfortunately, haven’t made an effort to discourage–I believe this book is worth reading. It’s the images that occur after finishing the book, when one’s guard is down, and the power that these images may have in helping achieve reconciliation between Native and non-Native Canadians, that may be this book’s greatest strength. Images like that of an old, drunk, Native guy sitting on a park bench, grinning warmly as you draw near …