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Secret Path


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Jeff Lemire, with songs by Gord Downie

Price: 
23.99

Page 45 Review by Stephen

A tremendously powerful, album-sized book, silent save for the inclusion of Gord Downie's lyrics from songs you can download using a unique code enclosed in a sealed insert, although such is Lemire's exceptionally well wrought craft that you can hear the poor lad's relentless chattering of teeth and his shivering rasps of exhausted breath, exhaled into the empty, freezing air.

And then it starts to rain.

Yes, then it starts to rain.

When he huddles at night alongside the long, rigidly straight and so exposed rail tracks, arms wrapped around his legs, there is no cover, and snot drips snorting from his nose.

There's no cover, no company, no respite and very little hope save for his dwindling dreams of ever finding himself home.

To begin with these daydreams are more vivid and colourful, the starkest and coldest of blues and his black leather boots giving way to bear feet dangling idly above water and banks of soft, tufted green grass below an apricot-coloured sky. He pictures his family - mother, father, younger sister and baby sibling - welcoming him back from a bountiful fishing trip with beaming smiles and unbridled pride. Everything is as it should be.

Nothing has been that way for years.

If you've ever seen the Australian film 'Rabbit-Proof Fence' directed by Phillip Noyce, based on the book by Doris Pilkington Garimara, you will have a very clear picture of the appalling story being told here. I'm afraid it was all too true, as is this. On the book's back cover we are told:

"Chanie Wenjack (misnamed Charlie by his teachers) was a young boy who died on October 22, 1966. He was trying to walk home, along the railroad tracks, trying to escape the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School."

Several boys aged 7 to 12 attempted the same thing at my prep school, Packwood Haugh, such was its... environment... but always during much more clement nights, and with far fewer miles to travel.

"Chanie's home was 400 miles away. He didn't know that. He didn't know where his home was, nor know how to find it. But like so many kids from residential schools - more than anyone will be able to imagine - he tried."

Why would he do that? You know, apart from the not inconsiderable wrench of not actually being at home, in the arms of his loving family where he belonged?

Throughout the graphic novel we are given glimpses of incidents our runaway would rather forget. Not just his initiation into institutional "care", either, though those scenes are repugnant enough: boys being stripped of their individuality with mandatory, ugly, perfunctory and identical haircuts; then stripped of all their clothes, privacy and dignity. They huddle, humiliated, naked and vulnerable under the communal showers, clutching their privates as the priest watches on.

We are never shown his face, then or late at night as he patrols the dormitories, pausing by bedsides. His disembodied hand flexes, and then reaches out. But we quite clearly see the awful fear in the young boy's eyes, presumably not a one-off occurrence but a fear to be feared throughout each long hour of every successive day and then its subsequent night.

Predatory Russian Roulette.

Lemire's recent ROUGHNECK was phenomenal, a real return to contemporary-fiction ESSEX COUNTY excellence where he all but began, with colouring as equally restrained and resplendent as this. There's a starry-night splash page which had me agog. Here too Lemire packs a punch as emotionally charged as they were physically rendered in ROUGHNECK.

Not only that, but he has made maximum use of the size and shape of the format which was originally to have included a 12" vinyl album, wisely replaced (given international shipping) with a free digital download instead.

It begins, post-prologue, with the last vestiges of autumn - the few lingering, dried-up, senescent leaves - blowing over the open, exposed and austere rail tracks, the skeletal trees ranged like spiked railings on either wide side.

But it is its following page which I cannot find online uncut or at the right size which impresses me most. It shows four horizontal tiers of the same, unrelentingly straight (and so, by inference, infinite) railroad with no end in sight, as the lost lad approaches us, his eyes closed, his haunted thoughts inevitably elsewhere.

The combination of the vertically stacked, diagonally driven vanishing points creates a thoroughly unnerving, disconcerting, recurrent vista on which the eye cannot possibly rest, so inducing what I can only describe as a an involuntary flickering of vision in which you cannot help but skip alternate horizontal panels back and forth, up and down.

I've never seen anything like it in comics. The effect is akin to a stroboscope.

For my money this is best absorbed without the lyrics every dozen or so pages, but it's far better to have something included to skip rather than something missing.

Proceeds go to the Canadian National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) which promises to publicise yet-to-be-revealed atrocities such as those alluded to within, and then preserve them in the public conscience alongside the Catholic Church's systematic but consistently covered-up sexual abuse of young boys by priests who were sworn to celibacy, which is now thankfully well within the proven public domain so you cannot sue me for saying so.

In the interests of balance: I've not known the Protestant Church's clergymen to be any less hands-on, nor British public-school masters, in my day at least. God save us from closed, cloistered cults.

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