Fatty Legs

Fatty Legs (2010) is a memoir about a young Inuvialuit girl’s two years at a religious residential school. It is based on the experiences of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, who cowrote the novel with her daughter-in-law Christy Jordan-Fenton. Published by Annick Press, the book features illustrations by Liz Amini-Holmes and archival photographs from Pokiak-Fenton’s personal collection. Fatty Legs was a finalist for the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize. It received many other nominations and was named one of the 10 best children’s books of the year by the Globe and Mail.

Margaret Pokiak Fenton

Authors and Background>

Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, who was named Olemaun at birth on Holman Island in the Arctic Ocean, was a grandmother by the time she revealed a secret she had held for 60 years about her time in a residential school. She met her husband, Lyle Fenton, while she was working for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories. They raised eight children in Fort St. John, BC. When Fatty Legs was first published, she was earning an income selling bread, bannock and traditional Inuit crafts at the local farmer’s market.

Christy Jordan-Fenton helped write her mother-in-law’s story. Before coauthoring the book, she worked as a soldier, pipeline labourer, survival instructor and bareback bronco rider. Illustrator Liz Amini-Holmes is a freelance American artist who lives in a treehouse in the San Francisco Bay area.

Synopsis

As a young girl in the High Arctic, eight-year-old Olemaun (pronounced OO-lee mawn) Pokiak learns from her older half-sister that outsiders hold the key to unlocking a great secret. These outsiders, French-Canadian nuns and male priests from Belgium, pluck Inuvialuit and other Indigenous children from their homes to place them in schools.

Olemaun’s desire to learn to read is sparked by half-sister Rosie’s partial recounting of Alice in Wonderland. Olemaun wants to know why Alice goes down the rabbit hole if she does not plan to hunt the hare.

In February 1944, Olemaun asks her father to take her to the residential school. He resists because he remembers his own experiences at residential school. Though he loves to read, he values his own peoples’ traditional knowledge more than that of the outsiders. At her insistence, her parents finally relent and deliver her to a school in Aklavik, a Northwest Territories hamlet north of the Arctic Circle.

Residential School Students
A group of nuns with Indigenous students, Port Harrison, Quebec, circa 1890.

Olemaun’s introduction is an unhappy one. A nun with “a hooked nose like a beak” ushers her away before she can say goodbye to her family. With boney fingers and wearing a black cloak, the nun reminds the girl of a raven. Another nun then snips the braids from the new pupils, which leaves all the girls crying in humiliation. They are also ordered to wear ill-fitting clothes. When Olemaun tries to put on stockings her mother bought for her, the nun she now calls Raven snatches them from her and tries to put her in her place by reminding her that she is now known by her Christian name, Margaret.

The girls do many chores in the school. Living conditions are harsh. When Margaret refuses to eat yet another bowl of cabbage soup, even though she is starving, Raven grabs the girl by her dress. “This is no place for a wilful child,” Raven hisses. In the ensuing struggle, the bowl spills onto Raven, who raises an arm to strike the child, only to be blocked by the body of kindly Sister MacQuillan, known as Swan.

Margaret is a smart student and learns to read, but Raven is determined to break her spirit and gives her extra chores. When some children become sick with smallpox, Margaret writes a note to her parents asking them to rescue her, but Raven refuses to send the letter.

One day, the girls are given new grey stockings. Raven gives Margaret a pair of red stockings, which make her athletic legs look larger. She is teased and taunted by the other students, who begin calling her Fatty Legs. One Sunday, Margaret finds herself briefly alone in the laundry room. She strips off the hated red stockings and throws them into the fire beneath the vat of hot washing water. “No one is going to call me Fatty Legs, ever again,” she insists.

Raven is furious when Margaret appears without any stockings. But Margaret is saved when Sister MacQuillan sends her to the storeroom for a thick pair of grey stockings. She thinks they make her look like a wolf.


Themes

Fatty Legs touches on such universal themes as self-esteem, choosing between right and wrong and being courageous in the face of cruelty and meanness. Margaret, born as Olemaun — a name that refers to the hard stone used to sharpen a knife — is strong, persistent, indomitable and plucky. She stands up against bullying from both teachers and fellow students. She is also inquisitive and, like Alice following a rabbit down the hole, her curiosity places her in a predicament.

Glossary

The book includes page notes explaining words in Inuvialuktun, the language spoken by the Indigenous Inuvialuit of the Western Arctic. Muktuk are cubes of whale blubber and skin. Kamik, or kamak, are a type of boot also known as mukluks. An ulu is a knife with a rocker-like blade used to scrape hides, cut hair and prepare food.

Sequel

The success of Fatty Legs led to the publication of A Stranger at Home by Annick Press in 2011. Cowritten and illustrated by the same team as Fatty Legs, A Stranger at Home describes events after Olemaun/Margaret returns to her parents in the High Arctic. The homecoming is confusing at first, since her mother does not recognize her. Margaret has difficulties relearning her native language but soon does so and again uses her given name, Olemaun. In time, she finds her place, hunting with her father and driving her own sled.

At age 10, older and wiser than when she first left home, Olemaun contends with the emotional conflicts of someone her age. The book details the true-life reconciliation of one family and describes the scars of the residential school experience. Cynthia O’Brien, who reviewed the sequel for Quill & Quire magazine, described the story as “accessible and engrossing.”


Awards and Reviews

Fatty Legs was a finalist for the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize for book of the year in 2011. It received many other award nominations and was named one of the 10 best children’s books of the year by the Globe and Mail. In 2014, Shelagh Rogers, the host of CBC Radio’s “The Next Chapter,” named Fatty Legs as one of five great books by Indigenous writers. She praised it as a “a story of ingenuity, healing and resilience.”


External Links