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Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story by D. Robertson

Robertson, David.  Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story. Illus. Scott Henderson. Winnipeg: Highwater Press, 2011.  Print.

Sugar Falls is not the first graphic novel written by Swampy Cree novelist, David Alexander Robertson. Together with illustrator Scott Henderson, Robertson created a four book graphic novel series called 7 Generations. Robertson has also written The Life of Helen Betty Osborne. Some earnings from the sales of Sugar Falls goes to the Helen Betty Osborne Memorial Foundation bursary program. Sugar Falls was inspired by the true story of Cross Lake First Nation Elder, Betty Ross.  

Daniel has been assigned a school project where he must get a personal account from a residential school survivor. His friend, April, connects Daniel with her grandmother, Kokum (Betsy). Betsy confesses to April and Daniel that she has never shared this part of her life with anyone before. She tells them her horrific story, dressed in her traditional clothing, surrounded by cultural items that bring her comfort and strength.

Betsy shared that she had been deserted by her mother at the age of five. She was very fortunate to be taken in by a family who showed her love and kindness.  Unfortunately, at the age of eight, the government forced Betsy to attend a residential school away from her family. Betsy’s adoptive father had taught her many lessons in the short time she was with her new family. One of these lessons helped Betsy to survive her experiences at the residential school. Her father had taken her to Sugar Falls where he tells her that strength in relationships with people, traditions, and Mother Earth will keep her strong.

Betsy encountered many horrendous experiences at the residential school from the moment she was torn away from her family. The lesson that her father taught her enabled Betsy to endure the constant emotional, sexual and physical abuse from the staff at the residential school. Betsy used her determination and strength to survive her time away from her family and to later become a leader in her First Nation community.

Robertson deals with this time in Canadian history in a straightforward manner. Residential Schools is a very sensitive topic that needs to be shared with the younger Canadian generations. However, based on the content that Robertson included in his direct approach of telling the story makes it a book that would be best suited for high school students (ages 15 and up).

Recommended: 3 out of 4 stars
Reviewer: Heather Dunn

Heather Dunn is the K-9 Teacher-Librarian and Grade 8 Math Teacher at Athena Consolidated School in Summerside, PEI.